Fire chief Graham Stagg pledges to do “the very best” for all of Cambridgeshire

BY coincidence fire chief Graham Stagg’s pre arranged visit to the Fenland office of the Cambs Times and Wisbech Standard came at the same time as MP Stephen Barclay was publishing more criticism of him.

“Mr Barclay has really got it in for you and the way you run your business, hasn’t he?” I suggested.

“Yes he has and I have no understanding why,” said Mr Stagg who, in truth, has become battle hardened to the regular assaults by Mr Barclay.

In two major ‘blogs’ this week Mr Barclay had queried savings for closing Manea fire station, questioned spending by the fire service, asked how debit and credit cards were authorised for use by senior officers and asked if Mr Stagg was ready to take a cut in his �190,000 a year salary.

“No, that would be sheer tokenism” said Mr Stagg to any suggestion of recommending either he or senior colleagues volunteer for a pay cut.

However Mr Stagg did show some discomfort when questioned on Mr Barclay’s claim of that morning that spending in Cambridgeshire per head of population was much higher than had previously been claimed.

Mr Barclay said Mr Stagg had repeatedly described Cambridgeshire as the cheapest fire service in the country per head of population.

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“They use this claim to deflect much of the criticism of their wasteful spending,” said the MP. “But independent research I have commissioned now casts serious doubt on their claim.”

According to Mr Barclay latest expenditure data shows Cambridgeshire is one of the highest ranking of the 45 English fire authorities and not one of the lowest as had always been claimed.

“It appears that the lower figure used by the chief fire officer excludes a number of back office areas of spend,” said Mr Barclay. “In these areas Cambridgeshire is often the highest spender.”

Mr Stagg is now looking into the claims but remains adamant that Cambridgeshire is well run, cost effective and not at all the profligate authority Mr Barclay might have us believe.

In Fenland he believes there will be few discernible changes as the authority prepares to deal with the projected �4.2 million in cuts – effectively reflecting the 25 per cent cut in government grants over the next four years- but this could alter if more cuts become necessary.

Although Manea fire station is threatened with closure, for Chatteris, March and Wisbech there will be little difference.

“I need to be careful talking about Wisbech,” said Mr Stagg. “We are looking at it in terms of hours worked by day related staff, whole time during the day and retained at night.” The fire service was in talks with the union but effectively there would be no reduction in hours but shift patterns would change.

“In March, in the fullness of time, I would like to upgrade the station,” he said. “I can’t see the opportunity just now but March is almost exactly as busy as Ely which is a day related station. When we have the opportunity we will look at the potential to upgrade.”

Mr Stagg will be taking soundings from across the county but will also be back in Fenland twice- firstly to answer questions from Fenland Council’s overview and scrutiny committee and then to address a full council meeting about the proposed changes.

“My job is to do the very best for all communities of Cambridgeshire,” he said. “As a professional officer if you take out fire stations such as Manea then you would re-distribute that resource and provide greater availability across other stations.”

In October he will be back before the fire authority with a business case justifying the cost saving options including the projected saving of �80,000 a year by closing Manea fire station.

Last year fire crews at Manea attended just 26 incidents although they could probably have attended a further six if staffing levels had been improved. It is not, however, says Mr Stagg “a particularly busy station” and not the most isolated either in Cambridgeshire.

He said simply because the service had always maintained a station in places such as Manea didn’t necessarily mean it was the best way to move into the future.

“My interest is in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough in its entirety,” he added. A lot of research had been carried out and if he was not able to demonstrate general attendance at incidents would be improved by changes then he could not expect the fire authority to approve them.

“I am going to need to demonstrate I can improve the service,” added Mr Stagg.

County councillor Geoff Heathcock – and a fire authority member- is not sure that what is envisaged can be classed as an improvement.

“Members like me have queried again and again the ability to get to Manea in a minute from Chatteris or March along the B1093 road for instance in winter in ice,” he said.

Fire fighters meanwhile continue to bombard Mr Barclay with their views and opinions.

“Information I have received from two different sources suggests a misleading position is being presented to constituents,” says the MP.

“Manea fire station has been kept short of staff intentionally meaning it cannot respond to calls which are then used to justify its closure.”

• AFTER the interview, Mr Stagg followed up the discrepancy in the figures and later issued a statement.

“The figure quoted in the Audit Commission – which states that CFRS is one of the lowest costing fire and rescue services in England - is correct,” he said.

“The figure Mr Barclay quotes in the Chartered Institute of Public Financial Accountants (CIPFA) is indeed vastly higher than this (some �10 million in fact), but he is not comparing like for like.

“The CIPFA figure also includes our annual pension liability figures which all businesses and organisations are legally obliged to declare each year. This is a figure which shows the amount owed to current employees in their pensions provisions, now and in the future.

“CFRS must only keep a record of this liability; it is not required to fund it. This will be mainly funded from special Central Government grants when the pensions are due for payment.”

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