In My View: Fire Authority & Commercial Enterprise
It is often quoted that the first duty of any government is to protect the citizens. This is often thought of in terms of defence, making sure we are protected from hostile foreign actions. However, it must also apply to the way in which we are policed and indeed the protection given by the other emergency services.
I am a member of Hampshire Fire & Rescue Authority, (HFRA). This week, I delivered my most important speech to fellow members, attempting to persuade them not to treat the fire service, simply as a business.
Conservatives on the authority argue that our fire service is a business and that, in response to cuts in central government funding, the answer lies in developing commercial activities. I strongly believe this approach is misguided and dangerous, not just for Hampshire but for the future of fire authorities across the UK.
It is in all our interests that fire services are properly funded. All evidence from surveys suggest that people believe they get good value from HFRA. If central government isn’t allocating sufficient money to keep fire services running, then we should at least have the capacity to increase tax locally to meet the difference.
Why should the Fire Authority stay away from pursuing commercial profits? Lot’s of reasons, actually.
Firstly, it isn’t a business. It is a publicly funded organisation that exists for the specific purpose of protecting us. A business can and very often fails. A fire authority cannot afford to fail. It has to have the necessary resources available to it year after year. Do we really want to invite a situation where the number of fire tenders or fire fighters we can have depends on commercial success?
Secondly, I want every officer in the service to totally focus on the core job, not being distracted by the demands of enterprise, watching share prices, worrying about business risks as well as the risks they should be concentrating on.
Many local authority business ventures have failed in the past. What happens if a newly created commercial arm of the HFRA spectacularly crashes? Who will pick up the bill? What impact will this have on the ability of the HFRA to run services?
I think the pursuit of profits is best left to the private sector, not public bodies. There is also the argument that it is actually an anti-business measure by using its reputation and publicly funded resources to compete against private enterprise with an unfair advantage.
Finally, our own fire authority does not operate in isolation. Let us say, that the commercial ventures prove a short term success and the profits roll in. The central government reaction? Restrict funding still further, not just to Hampshire but for all other fire authorities. This will, in turn, increase the pressure on all of them to divert actions away from the day job, towards increasingly risky commercial operations… a road along which we must surely not travel.