Blue light services: dial M for merger

5 Dec 14
Alison Dewhirst

While legislation to permit integration of blue light services is on ice until after the election, pressure on resources is driving collaboration on the ground.

Much has been said about transforming emergency services by collaboration or even integration of the three blue light services. So what are the available options and what would they mean for governance and finance arrangements?

Sir Ken Knight's review of the fire and rescue service in England, Facing the future (May 2013), concluded it could not achieve the necessary reform and savings on its own. So police forces and local fire and rescue authorities were encouraged to undertake closer collaboration. The possibility of formal integration was also discussed, together with greater co-operation with neighbouring police forces on cross-boundary issues.

The Home Office was planning legislation to enable police and fire services to integrate but this has now been postponed until after the election (and depends, of course, on the result). The ambulance service is less easy to integrate as it falls under the Department of Health and there are 11 ambulance trusts in England and Wales, compared with 43 police forces and 49 fire and rescue services, so the geographical boundaries are very different, not to mention the differences in involvement of the Welsh Government. There are greater operational differences too.

If, as now, we encourage greater collaboration rather than formal integration, then this is a well-trodden path – although the scale of the challenge will increase. Today, collaboration is encouraged financially both by the Police Innovation Fund and the Fire and Rescue Service Transformation Fund.

In October, the winners of the latter fund were announced. These include Surrey, which was given £5.96m to deliver more effi cient transport for the fire, police and ambulance services in both Surrey and the next-door county of Sussex. Buckinghamshire won £2.84m to merge two fire stations and a police site. Durham was awarded £3.78m for two joint emergency services stations, including one at Barnard Castle that will also house a mountain rescue team.

Cumbria was awarded £4.6m for a new building for all three emergency services  (plus a library) in Ulverston while Hampshire has been awarded £2.6m for a new joint police and fire service headquarters, police co-location at firestations and fleet maintenance.

Formal integration is an option that some, such as Northamptonshire, want to explore. It would require primary legislation and have far greater consequences for operations, human resources, governance and finance. Legislation could set out mandatory integration but would involve considerable upheaval in restructuring. Or, enabling legislation could give local areas the choice to integrate depending upon their circumstances, including finance and geography, and priorities. The remit of police and crime commissioners could be extended to include fire.

This would follow the localism agenda of the coalition government, but could result in a 'mixed economy' across England and Wales, with some police and fi re services being effectively one organisation and others not. A mixed economy would have implications for future policymaking and governance, finance and accounting arrangements, depending upon whether separate legal entities were created under police and crime commissioners for fire.

Given the potential upheaval, the need for full integration must be questioned. If the benefits could be gained via collaboration without the costs of integration then that may be a preferred solution. The evidence is mixed; the extent to which police and fire services are embracing collaboration varies, but what is less clear is whether this will increase over time or if the additional incentive of integration is needed.

Pressure on resources is likely to continue over the coming years, steadily increasing the need for further collaboration and integration to obtain savings. The debate about integration will no doubt be brought into sharper focus as we near next year’s election. CIPFA will be exploring the issues around collaboration and integration in emergency services in more detail in the run-up to the general election.

Alison Dewhirst is police adviser at CIPFA. The institute is planning a publication on blue light integration in April 2015

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