Something strange and unsettling is happening at Potterne, HQ of the Wiltshire and Swindon Fire Authority. There is a very real danger of our well respected and vital life saving fire service becoming engulfed by internal politics.
A couple of months ago I was, as were other Wiltshire councillors, shown detailed financial figures by the Chief Fire Officer. These clearly substantiated the case for the proposed merger of Wiltshire and Dorset Fire Services. Having previously served eight years on the Fire Authority, I know full well the growing economic pressures resulting from central government funding cuts. The merger is the only viable way to preserve Fire Service capability. Without it, fire stations will have to close and communities put at risk.
So what exactly is going on? First, Wiltshire Councillor Graham Payne has been forced to resign his chairmanship of the Fire Authority because understandably he wished to proceed with the merger; whereas other Conservative members suddenly came out against it.
Consequently Conservative Councillor Christopher Devine is now chairman.
I regret to say that I detect the hand of Jane Scott, leader of Wiltshire Council, in this murky process. She has long harboured dreams of incorporating the Fire Service in her growing empire. This would be done by taking over the back office staff; similar to her move with Wiltshire Police.
Whatever the merits of such a proposal, it is financially obvious that in itself it will never produce sufficient efficiencies to make Wiltshire Fire Service viable. Hence the aforementioned threat to local fire stations to squeeze more money out of the system.
However, the merger, by dispensing with layers of senior uniformed staff, can deliver the required efficiencies that will demonstrably make the merged service viable while retaining local community fire stations.
Public consultation on the merger should have started this week. Christopher Devine has postponed this until October. There is now talk of pushing it further back until after the General Election. Meanwhile Wiltshire and Swindon Fire Service staggers on in a climate of grave financial uncertainty with no meaningful alternative to the merger.
Where we should have strong, foresighted leadership we have drift and prevarication.
Our communities will be the losers. This is most regrettable.
Jeff Osborn, Independent Wiltshire Councillor, Chepston Place, Trowbridge.