Berkshire, recently having been joined by Cheshire in having a unitary flavour, still has a few remnants of its old County Council.
One of these is the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service. It is constituted with 25 Members from our 6 unitary authorities who, as you might expect, occasionally take a parochial geographic view of the world rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.
It probably came as a surprise to my (Liberal Democrat) predecessor then, when Berkshire’s Royal Fire Service chose to close Windsor Fire Station because a computer model had identified a shortfall in theoretical cover in another part of the county.
I will spare readers the torment of explaining the niceties of an Integrated Risk Management Plan, but I spent a full day in the High Court (Royal Courts of Justice) last week exploring just such detail before a judge.
Nobody (outside of our representatives) appeared to worry too much that there is an important castle in Windsor, and it’s caught fire before, and that it’s a on-the-world-stage royal residence of some significance. Oh, and we also have one of the most popular tourist destinations in Legoland. And a vibrant night time economy. No, the evidence on the ground was outweighed by the computer software model, using maps and population to achieve a specific goal of optimising residential fire coverage for some new houses, being built elsewhere.
At this point it is fair to mention that the authority was operating under Government guidance (all hail to Government guidance) to produce the “right” answer.
Government guidance produces, from that software sausage machine, some “professional advice” which becomes “the best option” which becomes “the only logical choice to save lives”.
And we are told the fire station in Windsor must close. Thousands of
people protest. Eventually, we saved the fire station, but, doggedly,
the Fire Authority decided to cut the night service instead.
So can the Fire Authority decide to raise extra tax overall to improve
those other areas, without closing our fire station? No, because
capping limits basically preclude that (from a low starting number).
Can we, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, choose to tax a
little more in our authority area to pay to the Fire Service to keep
Windsor Fire Station open? No, the strict rules on fairness of the
Authority precept preclude that option too. Even if all authorities
agreed, unanimously, to allow us to pay a little bit more, it can’t be
I have no doubt that computer models are fairly designed, used
sensibly, and are put together with the best intention of saving lives.
But what can’t be changed is the decisions based on that information
because the centralised nature of the rules stop local people having a
little bit of what they want, even though their wishes are relatively
modest, and, in their minds, extremely desirable.
If localism existed either in totality to allow us to fund our own Fire
Service, or just to allow local choice and flexibility to operate that
public service as the local people would wish, a lot of problems would
And, we would have achieved a better Government of the people.