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Fire services back out of merger deal

Tuesday, 12th February 2013.

Suffolk and Cambridgeshire’s Fire and Rescue Services have agreed that the merger between them will not go ahead at this time.

However, both services remain committed to exploring other opportunities for closer working in order to save money, while helping to protect front line services.

Following a progress report presented to Suffolk County Council’s cabinet and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough’s fire authority last autumn, both services have been carrying out the detailed work necessary to complete a full business case.

As a result, a number of issues have been identified that collectively render a full merger unviable at this time, the county council says.

These are:
1 A Government announcement that changes to the criteria for triggering a referendum on proposed council tax increases would be relaxed in 2013/14 for eight fire authorities – including Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Fire Authority. The relaxation has enabled them to increase their band D equivalent council tax for 2013/14 by £5 (equivalent to a council tax increase of around eight per cent), to offset some of the decrease in Government grant funding. This increase was agreed at their fire authority meeting on the yesterday.
The increase has significantly widened the gap between the council tax precepts for the fire services in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire - with Cambridgeshire now having a council tax precept approximately £11 higher than Suffolk for a band D property. This scenario makes the necessary process of equalising council tax, were a merger to take place, problematic.
2 Achieving a merger by April 2015 would require significant support from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) - both in terms of providing necessary financial information and in facilitating the parliamentary process to achieve such a merger. There has been a great deal of engagement with DCLG but absolute assurance has not been realised in the course of the discussions.
3 The 12-week public consultation that was carried out across both Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, which finished on the January 14, was inconclusive in terms of the appetite for a full merger – with 49 per cent of respondents being in favour and 41 per cent not being in favour.
4 Further work has now been carried out on the potential efficiency savings that a merger might realise. These savings are measured against a backdrop of the services having already secured around £800,000 a year efficiency saving between them by combining 999 fire controls in the two services, and each service having already made many other significant efficiency savings over the last two years. The assessment is that a merger would realise further savings but these would not be as significant as first thought. The extent of these savings also needs to be considered against transitional costs that would need to be met, were a merger to take place.
5 There is a considerable difference between the level of reserves held by the Suffolk and Cambridgeshire services.

Cllr Colin Spence, Suffolk's cabinet member for public protection said: “It was important that we fully explored a potential merger to see how we might be able to build on the existing relationship between the two authorities.

"However, I was clear from the outset that we would only continue with plans for a full merger at this time if it was the right thing to do for the people of Suffolk."

Andy Fry, Suffolk's chief fire officer, said: "We have made significant savings through merging our control rooms and we will continue to try and identify further options to work to together and share resources.

"I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone connected with Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service for their ongoing commitment and dedication to protecting the people of Suffolk."

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