Amanda Milling is the Conservative MP for Cannock Chase.
When it comes to local taxation it’s all democratically accountable… Well, this statement is nearly true, but not quite.
Be it your parish, town, district, borough, county, or city council, your council tax bill is set by those who live or die by the ballot box. You can exercise your approval, or disapproval, on their guardianship of your council tax. This also goes for any community fee charged by councils.
Your police precept is now set by an elected Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) now that the unelected and completely unaccountable police authorities are gone. So this precept is now accountable to the public too.
Even a business improvement district levy is accountable to its members.
But there is one exception to this public accountability in terms of the decisions made and, crucially, the money taken from the public: fire and rescue authorities.
These bodies, which run our fire and rescue services, are in no way accountable for the council tax they charge. There may be councillors on our fire authorities, but these are appointed and not elected by the public to this post. This is not, and should not be confused with, democratic accountability.
In my view, it is time for change. This exception needs addressing and the way in which those who officiate over fire and rescue services needs reforming. There is a strong case for PCCs to have their remit extended to take on the duties and responsibilities of the fire and rescue authorities – as outlined in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. I have been calling for this in my first few months in Parliament and I welcome the consultation that the Government is currently undertaking.
I know that this is not a universally popular view, one counter-argument being that PCCs know nothing about fire and rescue services and aren’t sufficiently experienced to take responsibility for this service. I simply don’t accept this. They are no less experienced than the current appointed councillors. If anything, they are in some cases far better equipped to take on this role.
But of course the suitability of a person’s experience and ability to do the role is ultimately up to the voters and not unions, political commentators or other politicians. I am sure the same points were raised when PCCs were created and let’s face it, some of them have made a hugely positive and lasting difference in the role already.
The whole point of elected politicians is that they are supposed to be representatives of the public as lay people. I don’t know a councillor who is a qualified expert in each of the services their council runs. Their job is to be the voice of the public and to make decisions on their behalf. It’s the staff’s job to run and deliver the services. The politician is there to set the strategic direction, advised by the expert staff.
If the PCC was a combined role there is no reason why candidates with one or other background, or any background for that matter, couldn’t throw their hat into the ring.
We must also not forget that a single elected official does not preclude the two services remaining as two services, each with their expertise in their specialist field. It is simply that each service will be more accountable to the public.
In my view, this single accountability will also drive greater collaboration and integration between the two services in terms of facilities, back office functions and support services. I am by no means suggesting that fire officers should be arresting criminals or police officers fighting fires. Each have their unique frontline skills which we must commend, protect and optimise. I am simply suggesting there is the opportunity and need to eradicate duplication and encourage more effective joint working. This will create better value and better outcomes for the public.
There are already excellent examples of where this is being achieved – such as fire stations and police headquarters being co-located, training being shared, and joint communication centres set up.
The problem is that this is at worst patchy, and at best not going as far as it could. Police and fire services voluntarily choosing to ‘fully’ collaborate and integrate their back office and support services is reliant on a genuine will to do so on both parts. Formalising these arrangements by having one elected individual responsible for both services would mean that an objective review could be taken. They would have the ability to identify where integration is feasible; where collaboration is an opportunity; where services should remain distinct; and ultimately ensure resources are targeted to the frontline.
With all public services looking for savings, eradicating duplication is an obvious starting point, a ‘no brainer’.
I appreciate that there is an argument that this might be perceived to be an overly simplistic view, as I know there are some issues where police and fire services are not coterminous. But we would not achieve anything if we didn’t drive change and look at ways of addressing barriers and overcoming obstacles.
Let’s not forget that so many councils, across so many borders share services. I know of councils in one county sharing back office, purchasing, or disaster recovery with councils in other counties or even in other regions.
So why is it so wrong for police and fire services to share functions and facilities?
Why can’t they share buildings, HR, PR, procurement, preventative work, identification of the vulnerable, community engagement or any number of activities?
They can do all this while still having distinctive frontline services for the public.
We should be hugely grateful to both our police and our fire and rescue services for all their work serving and protecting the public – often in the most difficult of circumstances and putting their lives on the line for others. This is particularly the case at this time of year, when they will be working through the Christmas period to ensure we all remain safe and secure.
I am simply calling for, and supporting, formalising collaboration and integration arrangements between police and fire and rescue services behind the scenes, so that we can ultimately protect both of these services’ frontline provision. I believe extending the remit of the PCCs is essential in achieving this as well as finally making ALL local taxation democratically accountable.