Over recent weeks I have been asking constituents to help me write a speech for the House of Commons on Corby's fire service.
The response has been incredible with over 200 constituents sharing their views. Last night in Parliament I told the Minister what my constituents think about the fire cuts. I wanted the Government to hear from local people directly, in their own words.
You can read my speech below, or the full debate on Hansard here. The Corby Telegraph also reported on my speech.
I asked the Minister to use her influence to persuade Northamptonshire County Council to think again. Her response was disappointing. She claimed that the Fire Service has been given more money by the government and is improving services. She clearly didn't understand the impact of what's being proposed for Corby.
I hope at least that the scrutiny in Parliament and in the media that has resulted from the debate, and from your contributions, will have caused a rethink at County Hall. I have written to the Council today to ask what they have done with the extra money the Fire Minister claims they have been given. The Council have told me they've had a big cut and it's difficult to know who is telling the truth.
I will be meeting up again with local firefighters to discuss the next steps in our campaign and will keep working hard to stop these dangerous cuts being implemented. I will keep you updated on this work and let you know how you can help.
Andy Sawford (Corby) (Lab/Co-op): I am very pleased to have this opportunity today to lead a special debate on the future of fire services in Corby and east Northamptonshire. My constituents are extremely concerned about plans drawn up by the current administration at Northamptonshire county council to scrap one of Corby’s two fire engines and cut the firefighter team at the station, which serves Corby and much of east Northamptonshire. The county council is planning reductions in the Northamptonshire fire and rescue service operating budget of £1.6 million over three years—that is equivalent to a cut of 7.5% in the current operating budget. That is additional to cuts in excess of £1 million already implemented under this Government, which resulted in a loss of 31 posts. The strategy for delivering these cuts is simple: cut at Corby; cut an engine; and cut the crew
The council has been running a consultation, which closes today, in which it is not considering cuts to services in any other part of the county—the impact is all on Corby. A one-option consultation is not a consultation at all; it is a public relations exercise. The council’s plans will take out a standard fire appliance, and the associated crew, from Corby and replace this with a new Cobra intervention vehicle crewed by only two firefighters. I have discussed this with Martyn Emberson, head of the fire and rescue service in the county, who has confirmed that these changes would not add any new capability to Corby—Cobra-based technology can already be deployed from the Corby station, as I have seen for myself; would significantly deplete manning levels at the station; and would result in a degradation of the response service locally. The key concern about these changes is that if firefighters arrive on the scene of a major fire, they may face a delay of up to 20 minutes before they can enter the building.
The strength of public opinion against the plans is huge. Thousands of people have signed an online petition organised by local firefighters. Over the past few weeks, more than 200 people have responded to my appeal for input into tonight’s speech. I want the Minister to hear from my constituents in their own words. I hope that she will listen to them and agree to meet me, local firefighters and the county council to see whether we can find an alternative to these current plans.
I appreciate that money is tight for local councils, but the county council has not explored other options. Firefighters tell me that there are other ways of making savings, but the county council is not interested in exploring them.
I want to start by saying that my constituents really appreciate the excellent work of the firefighters who cover Corby and east Northamptonshire. Graham Scotney says:
“Our firefighters do an amazing job from the front line, fire fighting and accident rescue through to fire prevention and education.”
Terry Lester says firefighters
“attend many emergency situations such as road traffic accidents, plane crashes, train crashes, building or scaffolding collapse, all aspects of flooding, chemical spills, releasing people trapped in machinery and rescuing animals.”
Lyn Simnett says simply:
“We must protect them as they protect us.”
Of the county council’s proposals, Anne Brown tells me that they are “bloomin’ terrible”. “Disgusting,” say Bryan Robson, Janet Keeney, Liz McCormick, Dave Holt and Robert Nelson. “Uncannily stupid,” says Ian Murrie. Paul Cross calls the plans “insane”. Kenny Keys, Albin Wallace and Lisa Chong say the plans are a “disgrace”. Tim Wadley feels that the proposed cuts are “putting lives at risk”, a view that is shared by Robert Anderson.
David Laws says the proposal is “ludicrous”. As a Corby resident for more than 60 years, he told me that he objects
“strongly to this ridiculous idea”.
Julie Kelly says fire cover is not a “nice to have” but a resource that is there to save lives. “This is just stupidity”, says Michael Gray. Jean Addison and John Ashman both say that the council’s proposals are “short-sighted”. Christine Larkman says it is
“repulsive to put money before lives.”
Mark Lonnie says:
“Less sometimes really does mean less and that is exactly what’s being offered.”
Ian Foreman is “very troubled” by the plans. Tim Hawkes says that the plans are “incompetent and inept”.
“Ridiculous”, say Tom Cardwell and George Jenkins. Damian Roche agreed, saying:
“It is a ridiculous cut to make that endangers the lives of the residents of Corby and surrounding villages.”
Chris Godbold questions whether the idea has been thought through. I agree with Kim Denham when she says that there has been a “lack of sound judgment”. Shayna Denson said:
“This is crazy. The service should be expanded, not cut.”
“Idiotic”, says Valerie Walker. Keith Jenkinson said:
“It shows a lack of civic responsibility.”
Paul Grey, Niell McAllister and Samantha Timms say the idea is “ludicrous”. Ronald Aston calls it, “scandalous”. Ann Huntington says:
“It's iniquitous, terrible and a travesty.”
It makes no sense, says Robert Burridge. “Terrible”, says Jayne Gardiner. “A crazy idea”, agrees Sally Barlow.
Many commented that the cuts come at a time when Corby is the fastest-growing town in the UK with the highest birth rate in England. Helen Moore mentioned the new development at Priors Hall. Paul Young highlighted the growth of the Oakley Vale area.
Many of my constituents believe that rather than looking to cut Corby’s fire service, we should be talking about how we meet the needs of an expanding population.
Those points are re-enforced by John Walker, Elizabeth Mullen, Madeline Whiteman, Joseph Burlington, Geraldine Oliff, Tony Killem, Kelly Farrar, Irene Hamilton, Jane Parsell, Kirsty Lane, Gail Corby, Anita Few, Ian Duncan and others who contacted me. The others who expressed a view included: Trevor Haynes, James Campbell, Anita Hambly, Simon Neves, Melissa Roberts, Margaret Browning, Linda Bingham, Ann Kieran, Stan Gemmell, Barry Tempest, Sue Clews, David Smith and Wendy Finn. All of them took the time to share their views. Andrew Tyre says that, if anything, we need possibly more cover, not less.
Corby’s firefighters had a busy time over Christmas, with a large fire in the town’s shopping centre, along with a number of other serious incidents. Fortunately there were no fatalities, but my constituents are worried that cuts to the service will put at risk the safety of the public and the firefighters. Bernadette O'Keefe says:
“People's lives will be put at risk.”
Vicky Sidwell says:
“No amount of money saved would be worth risking people’s lives for.”
Helga Ramsay told me that
“the prospect of the time taken to reach a fire being extended is unacceptable.”
David Hamilton says:
“They waffle about it not endangering lives and the service being maintained... I don’t understand how this can be the case”,
and he is right to be sceptical. Debbie Graham thinks that this will put “people’s lives at risk”.
Mel Munton, the manager of one of Hanover’s sheltered schemes in Corby, said:
“It concerns me very much that because of this decision if ever a major fire emergency happened here at Swan Gardens many of my residents could be put in danger, serious danger, many being wheelchair bound or with poor mobility could lose their lives. The twenty minute wait for another fire tender to arrive could be disastrous”.
Michael May says the plans put “costs before essential services”. Paul Balmer says:
“If we saved money but lost ONE life then we would have saved nothing”.
John Holton says that the reason for maintaining cover is simple—“it saves lives”.
Lives will be particularly at risk when there is a large incident because, as Bob Scott points out, there will be fewer firefighters, or when two or more incidents require a fire service response at the same time. Susan Bird asks what will happen when two fires occur at once, and Jeff May asks:
“What happens if the fire service is called to two incidents in Corby at the same time?”
Paul Garvie stresses that a
“fire can take hold and kill in minutes so every second counts”,
and that that “cannot be allowed”.
Danny McAvoy highlights that the plans will leave Corby with only two firefighters to deal with some incidents. Mark Browning raises concerns about the ability of firefighters to respond should more than one fire break out in the town. Sonia Barker says:
“I think it is ridiculous cutting the fire services to just one engine. If there was a very major fire and only one to go out to the call you would have to get more from around the county and that will be losing time and make things even harder”.
This is happening at a time when many of the retained fire engines in nearby towns are frequently not running or not available. Corby’s two engines provide resilience for the whole of north Northamptonshire. Taking that away will put lives and firefighters at risk not only in my constituency, but in neighbouring areas.
The Corby fire service covers many villages surrounding the town. My constituents in rural areas are rightly concerned about the plans. Jacqueline Kay highlights the fact that residents in her village, Gretton, “have not been asked” about how the plans will affect them. Lloyd Caddock asks
“how long will it take to get to villages for serious fires”?
John Melhuish points out that lots of rural areas depend on the Corby fire service, as do areas right across from the border of Lincolnshire and to the border of Cambridgeshire.
Skip Sortland is worried that
“if they can get rid of a second engine in Corby they can then reduce the fire services in others parts of the county just as easy”.
The truth is that they are not even considering what options there are in the rest of the county; this one-option consultation is all focused on Corby.
Darren Whitaker believes the cuts
“will clearly affect the level of protection that Corby and its surrounding villages require and deserve”.
Peter McDonald says:
“Bearing in mind that Corby station provides cover for a vast amount of rural communities in the North East of the county it is not only the people of Corby whose lives are being jeopardised. It’s a disgrace to hoodwink the general public by saying they are replacing an appliance with new high tech fire-fighting equipment”.
Alison Tootle says that this is a
“real problem for Corby and the surrounding villages”,
and she is right.
Many people have commented to me on the impact the plans will have on Corby’s business community. Marian Anderson says:
“A cut in fire service personnel will undermine the attractiveness of Corby as a destination for business and put lives at risk”.
Dave Fox, a resident of east Northamptonshire, highlights the fact that Corby is a highly “commercially productive” sector of the county. Indeed, Corby has been identified as the manufacturing capital of the country, which has to be weighed as a factor in assessing fire risk.
Janice Harper points out that if
“crews are unable to take swift action there is a cost to businesses and in consequence to the community. If businesses are unable to continue it means loss of jobs and damages the local economy”.
William Renwick, who told me that he was responsible for finalising a report about risk in fire services in Northamptonshire in 1985, says that removing
“one pump and replacing it with a questionable vehicle will place the industry and commerce of Corby at risk”.
Robert Thorogood, a business owner in the area, says that
“Corby and district represent a large part of our business infrastructure”,
and that the size of the population and the number of businesses demand its having both pumps.
Robert Leacroft says:
“As the number of industrial units in the area increases the chance of fires involving chemicals, plastics etc. increases and these need to be tackled as fast as possible so reducing the number of engines available is a very backwards step”.
There have been fires in many of our factories in the area. Les Vargerson makes the point:
“It is not just Fires. Corby is surrounded by Arterial Roads where the Fire Brigade is always in attendance due to the number of…accidents. They cannot be in two places at any time with just one unit.”
Tony Banks believes that the proposals show that the Government want to return Britain to the ’30s, with the decimation of public services. Kevin Morrisey asks whether savings could be made elsewhere by the council, which is a good question. Eleanor McEwan sees a different motive. She says that it is
“typical Tory councillors targeting a Labour…town”.
Paul Dickson believes the proposals are
“indicative of the County Council’s treatment of Corby in general. How can they even think this is remotely workable? They are now playing with the lives of Corby residents”.
Ann-Marie Leonard says that this is
“another demonstration of the blind stupidity of the rapidly failing”
Northampton county council. Julie Halliday says:
“I think for a council to even consider this just as a money saving measure shows a lack of care and imagination which the Corby people will fight all the way”.
Tracy Bruce says:
“Reducing a life or death service to a growing population is the politics of the incompetent”.
David Rafferty said that
“this is another Tory action showing that they care more about profit than the ordinary people”.
Lorraine Shaw says:
“As usual with Northants County Council they are targeting Corby residents and have a complete disregard for life and safety”.
Rob Maguire points out that Northamptonshire county council’s own website presents figures for last year
“indicating that Corby Fire Station has the second highest area coverage and incident attended”
whereas Richard Sharman reinforces the point that
“Corby has had two fire crews for the last 50 years”.
Lucille Giola works in a local pharmacy and has spoken to lots of her customers about the plans. She says that she has
“not heard one person agree with the proposals”.
Roger Kinsey asked a good question, which was whether
“a correct procedural risk assessment survey”
has been conducted
“and past statistics…taken into account”.
I very much doubt it and I have seen no evidence of such.
Kelly Tallan shared her experience with me:
“Having had family and friends involved in house fires in Corby, sadly with fatal consequences, I cannot believe this is even being discussed. Any delays to enter a burning building can and will have dangerous results, not only for the people inside but also the firefighters. This town is growing rapidly and we can’t have our emergency services reduced, please please rethink.”
Ian Chapman says:
“The figures being used for the argument to reduce the number of fire engines are already old and with the year on year population increase this data is completely unreliable and there should at the very least be a stay of execution whilst new data is gathered and this time include a factoring for the future growth of Corby.”
I appreciate that the Minister will be unable to respond to all the points from my constituents, but I hope she has taken on board what they think. I am sure that she was in contact with the county council before today, as that is the usual way of preparing for such debates, and I look forward to hearing from her. I hope that she has challenged the council on why it is considering only one option, and I very much hope she has not bought into the spin it is peddling about the proposals.
Before I finish, I want to share three final comments from Corby firefighters. They have insights and experience that we should listen to, but sadly they do not feel valued by the Government, who have failed to find a resolution to their ongoing pensions dispute—a resolution that has been found in other parts of the UK, but not by this Government. The Minister has a chance to show the firefighters that on this issue she is listening and respects their view.
Lois Smith said:
“As a serving firefighter in the town for some twenty plus years, I can tell you that we have rescued numerous people by the skin of their teeth over the years. Downgrading a full appliance that carries four personnel to a smaller appliance with two personnel will ultimately lead to the new appliance turning up to an incident one day and the two person crew not being able to rapidly deploy to the incident and immediately rescue people.”
“In the skin of the teeth cases the outcome would have been very different if we just had this new proposed appliance there at the time”
rather than a proper fire engine.
Gary Mitchell says:
“The proposal to reduce the number of fire fighters (2nd Pump) at Corby Fire Station is shocking. I have had to listen to the County councillors responsible for these cuts trying to explain that the Cobra fire fighting system and a robot can some how take the place of operational fighters, this rhetoric is completely misleading and dangerous to both the public and fire fighters alike. We have had Cobra fire fighting equipment on Corby appliances for 5 years! Expert Firefighters save people’s lives from fire and road traffic collisions”,
not robots. Rob Martin says that the plan
“to replace a properly equipped fire appliance with the proposed van is like replacing a properly equipped ambulance with a first aid box”.
In summary, I believe that there are very important reasons for maintaining the current level of capability at the station. The first is the risk profile of Corby and the surrounding area. Corby still has a range of businesses within its local economy that present particular risks arising from the nature of the processes and materials used. Historically, the industry and commerce in Corby are the reason the risk was rated higher traditionally and Corby always had two engines.
The second reason is the recognition that Corby is growing. This is planned to continue, with the population reaching 100,000 by the end of the next decade. Even accepting the progress made in preventing domestic fires, a town of this size needs to be serviced properly by the fire and rescue service because extra demands will be placed on the service by a growing population. Thirdly, the station supports a very large geographical area beyond the town of Corby, stretching across all the villages up to the county’s borders with Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. There are well-documented difficulties with, for example, the fire station at Oundle, which is rarely able to get its retained crew to be available to be on the run with the fire engine. Maintaining the Corby station’s capability is critical to providing north-eastern Northamptonshire with the assurance that a responsive and adequately crewed service is available to meet fire and rescue needs in this part of my constituency.
I recognise that councils, including Northamptonshire county council, have faced very significant cuts. When this Government were elected, they told us that their cuts would not have an impact on front-line services. We all know that is not true. We have seen the cuts in social care, Sure Start and road maintenance. People have put up with it partly because they were told it was needed to eliminate the deficit, but now they know the truth—the deficit is still there and the debt has gone up because the Government caused our economy to grind to a standstill for four years. The Government have dug a bigger hole and now they are planning cuts that are deeper and ever more dangerous. Taking away Corby’s second engine would become a symbol of this and it would have tragic consequences.
I heard that the Tory parliamentary candidate in Corby is trying to dissociate himself from the fire cuts. He has called on Corby borough council to pick up the tab using the new homes bonus, a cheeky move that conveniently overlooks the fact that Northamptonshire county council receives far more in new homes bonus. More important than that, it has the statutory responsibility to provide a fire service. We do not want a sticking plaster. This is about the security of revenue funding year on year in future years for the second fire engine that we need in Corby to be provided by the county council, with its statutory responsibility.
If the Tories ever want to get anywhere in Corby, they should show local people some respect and stop trying to treat them like fools. People in Corby know where these cuts are coming from, they know exactly who is responsible, and if Tory councillors over at county hall force these fire cuts through, the damaging and potentially fatal consequences will be on their hands. I hope the Minister will do the right thing and use her influence to tell the county council to think again, because there has to be a better way.
Over recent weeks I have been asking constituents to help me write a speech for the House of Commons on Corby's fire service.