The new year will see West Sussex County Council call on the government for more money to fund its fire and rescue service (WSFRS).
In a move which echoes that of the county’s headteachers, the local authority wants to know why it receives half as much funding as neighbouring East Sussex and far less than both Surrey and Hampshire.
The West Sussex slice of the local government settlement funding assessment for fire authorities has dropped from £9.9m in 2016/17 to £5.4m in 2019/20.
This, added to the county’s proposals to cut £600,000 from the budget, has lead to some heated debates at County Hall, Chichester.
At a full council meeting on Friday, Michael Jones (Lab, Southgate & Gossops Green) called on Debbie Kennard, cabinet member for safer, stronger communities, to not only write to the government, but also to not take ‘any decisions that will result in a reduction in staffing or services provided by WSFRS’.
During the ensuing debate, Sue Mullins (Lab, Northgate & West Green) accused the council of ‘poor forward thinking, bad future planning and disastrous decision-making’.
She added: “The cuts being put in place now will have a reverberating effect and will most certainly come back to bite us, in a very short space of time.”
Dr James Walsh (Lib Dem, Littlehampton East), pointed out that the county’s settlement from the government worked out at around £6 per head, compared to £9 per head for Surrey and around £12 per head for Hampshire and East Sussex.
He said: “That by any stretch of the imagination cannot be fair or equitable. It’s commendable that we’re actually able to deliver any sort of reasonable fire service with that money.”
Calling on Ms Kennard to ‘take up the cudgel and join the battle for fair funding from the minister’, Dr Walsh added: “What we’re talking about here, if we do not get fair funding from the minister, is danger to life.
“Cuts mean deaths in this particular fire and rescue service. And we need to recognise that and realise our responsibility for it.”
West Sussex recently underwent its first inspection in 13 years by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS).
Ms Kennard said she was waiting for the report ‘so we can measure how we sit against other services’.
She told the meeting: “Even though we are under-funded, as we may be, it is not armaggedon. Our firefighters are out there every day, working very hard to keep West Sussex safe.”
Addressing Mr Jones, she added: “We work together as a council, regardless of what side we’re standing on, we work together.
“The fire service is not a political football to be kicked. They go to anybody, any race, any colour, any creed, any colour of party.
“I will write with you if you will work with us to give that answer to government when we are fully informed.”