Scottish fire service ‘faces funding shortfall’

21 May 15

The merger of Scotland’s eight fire and rescue authorities into a central national service was conducted well and the service is effectively managed, but a major funding gap looms, according to the auditor general for Scotland.

Caroline Gardner’s report, published today, says that even though the service is on track to surpass its medium-term operational savings target of £328m by 2027/28, revenue cuts in the pipeline suggest a £42.7m funding shortfall in 2019/20.

‘Even without the funding gap identified in our report, a long-term financial strategy would be essential. It’s now crucial that the service agrees this strategy, and supporting plans, to show how it will close the funding gap and achieve savings by 2019/20 and beyond,’ Gardner said.

She welcomed a review by the service of future strategy, and insisted: ‘The creation of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service was well managed. This achievement provides a valuable opportunity to share the lessons of how this was done with other public bodies going through a merger process.’

In its first two years, the service has sustained a budget reduction of £31.5m or 10.8% (15.7% in real terms) when compared to its predecessor authorities. The background to this, Gardner’s report argues, is an improved performance which has had no adverse impact on the public, and which is more open than the previous regime to scrutiny and challenge.

‘The Scottish Government and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) managed the 2013 merger of the eight fire and rescue services effectively,’ the report says.

‘The Scottish Government clearly defined roles, expectations and initial targets for the chair and chief officer, and the merger followed good practice.’

The report praises the SFRS for exceeding savings targets, but adds: ‘Based on forecasts of UK public sector spending by the UK Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), we estimate that the SFRS's budget will reduce to approximately £226.0m by 2019/20, representing a reduction against the predecessors’ 2012/13 budgets of £64.7m or 22.3% (31.3% in real terms).

‘It is now crucial that the service agrees a long-term financial strategy and supporting strategies, to show how it will close the funding gap and achieve savings by 2019/20 and beyond.’

Conservative justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell said the report highlighted ‘serious failings’ by Scottish ministers in managing the merger, while the Greens’ Alison Johnstone expressed concern that frontline staff could bear the brunt of the funding shortfall.

  • Keith Aitken
    Keith Aitken

    covers Scottish affairs for Public Finance from Edinburgh. He was formerly economics editor and chief leader writer on The Scotsman and now has a busy freelance career as a writer, broadcaster and event chair.

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