Conflict over fire cuts in London

We are almost at the final post with the fire consultation in London (final day for submissions is 17 June) with cuts proposed to 12 fire stations, 18 engines and 520 firefighters.

Fiona Twycross is a city-wide member of the London Assembly and sits on the London Fire and Emergency planning authority

We are almost at the final post with the fire consultation in London (final day for submissions is 17 June) with cuts proposed to 12 fire stations, 18 engines and 520 firefighters.

Despite the spin, we have seen a number of well attended and fiery meetings with strong opposition to the cuts. It seems unlikely that there will be anything other than overwhelming opposition to the cuts from the majority of those putting in submissions to the consultation.

The end of the process is by no means the end of the conflict as we are nearing the point at which we will establish whether Boris Johnson will allow the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) to make a decision on the future of the London Fire Brigade or whether he will force through the cuts.

A hint perhaps comes in the form of the evidence given this week by Sir Eddie Lister, Boris’s chief of staff, to the Community and local government’s Select Committee review of the 2007 GLA Act.

Clearly frustrated that the current political balance in London means that the mayor doesn’t have a tame Fire Authority, he suggested:

“LFEPA is an example of a conflict of interest for Assembly Members, you have the Assembly which is responsible for scrutinising LFEPA but a number of AMs sit on the decision making board, they make the decision then they scrutinise themselves for that decision.”

He proposes that a better model would be the same as the police with a mayoral adviser held to account by the Assembly. The problem is that the removal of the Police Authority with the mayor delegating power to the mayor’s Office of Police and Crime is not a good example of increasing accountability.

With both the Police consultation and the current fire consultation, senior officers have effectively been politicised as they have been put in a position of defending politically motivated cuts. Accountability has fallen not risen since the changes to the police structure and boundaries blurred.

Additionally, it is only the requirement for the impossibly high two-thirds majority to amend the mayor’s budget that creates the anomaly of a decision being made by the Fire Authority on which Assembly members sit differing from the Assembly’s decision.

The majority of Assembly members voted against the cuts and none of the fire authority members who are on the Assembly have voted differently on the Fire Authority (which requires a simple majority) to how they did on the Assembly. Rather than seeing it as a conflict of interest, the make-up and balance of the Fire Authority can be seen to be part of a system of checks and balances on a mayor determined to push through cuts irrespective of the merit of the arguments put to him.

The potential for conflict of interest is noted in the make-up of the Fire Authority, which is why the majority of members are not Assembly members and the membership reflects the political balance in London as a whole. In any case it is how you manage conflict of interest, not its existence in the first place that matters.

Conversely, there is an example – no doubt equally frustrating to Sir Eddie – of an Assembly member who voted one way on the Assembly (in favour of cuts) and another way on a local authority (against the cuts).

No less than the statutory deputy mayor, Victoria Borwick (whose late arrival at the budget meeting earlier this year almost meant our budget amendment to stop the fire cuts passed) voted against our amendment and for the mayor’s budget and the fire cuts at the Assembly and against the cuts in Kensington and Chelsea.

Now that’s an interesting conflict.

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