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From the outset, I would like to thank everyone who took part in the A Case for Change consultation – your interest, time and feedback is appreciated and has been hugely valuable in helping me make my final decision on how to progress. Your response was quite simply remarkable and unprecedented in its scale.
I began the consultation with a clear message: having carefully read the full and thorough draft business case, I believed there was a compelling case for a change of governance of our fire and rescue service in Norfolk. I put my cards on the table and said, in my opinion, moving governance to a Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner (PFCC) would allow us to do even more to protect the vulnerable and make our communities even safer.
However, I stressed that, whilst that was my view, it was of great importance to me to hear the views of the people of Norfolk, key partners and stakeholders and those within our emergency services. I stressed that, while I had formed a view on the state of the evidence before consulting, I remained open to and welcomed as many responses and views as possible, all of which would be carefully considered. Clearly, proposals were still at a formative stage and I wanted to fully understand the appetite for change.
I have said throughout this process that a consultation on the future governance of our fire and rescue service should not be about politics and I, for one, attempted to keep it that way. I do not, and never have, seen fire governance as a political issue. This has been about getting the very best for the people of Norfolk and our emergency services, and not about political point scoring; it is far too important for that. That is why I have always said I would be guided by the evidence and the evidence alone.
As a public servant, I always felt it was incumbent on me to see if there was a better way of doing things – after all, why wouldn’t one explore every possibility of delivering public services in the most effective, most efficient and most economical way? And why wouldn’t you give the people of Norfolk their say? So that is what I did.
During the consultation period, I travelled the length and breadth of Norfolk, speaking to thousands of people, offering them the opportunity to find out more, ask questions and have their say. I held more than 40 public events and a public meeting in the heart of Norfolk, in Dereham. I went to lunch clubs, supermarkets and council meetings; I stood on sea fronts, market places and high streets. I also heard from local MPs, receiving letters and statements of support from seven of them.
It was heartening to see the level of interest of Norfolk people and their willingness to engage in the debate about the future of two key public services. It was clear to me that what people want at the end of the day is good public services that deliver the best possible service and excellent value for money.
The consultation results show that Norfolk people believe that this would best be achieved with a change of governance for their fire and rescue service.
In total, there were nearly 8,000 responses to the consultation, with more than 1,800 people also leaving a comment. These are exceptional numbers – this is more than three times the number of people that any other PCC has heard from. It represents a great deal of work by a small team working hard to give as many people as possible the opportunity to have their say.
59% of all those who took the consultation survey felt that governance of the fire and rescue service in Norfolk should transfer to a Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner.
The consultation found that of the 6,600 respondents who claimed not to work for one of the three main stakeholders, 61% agreed with the proposal, including 46% of fire and rescue personnel.
One of the most interesting parts of the consultation process for me personally have been the conversations I have had with members of Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service. I faced considered questions and informed challenge on my visits to fire stations, but I was left in no doubt that there was appetite for change. To summarise, fire personnel thanked me for taking a genuine interest in their service and for making them visible again.
I have said throughout the process that this exploration into the future governance of our fire and rescue service should not be about politics and I for one, attempted to keep it that way. I do not, and never have, seen fire governance as a political issue. This has been about getting the very best for the people of Norfolk and our emergency services and not about political point scoring; it is far too important for that. I have always said I would be guided by the evidence and the evidence alone.
It is right to say that, while the vast majority of people I consulted with across the county – whether they agreed of disagreed – engaged with the process in the proper manner, there was abuse from a small minority. I have been made aware of instances of multiple voting against the proposal, which I note. This was a real shame as I was simply attempting to give as many people as possible the chance to have their say on a really important issue.
I also feel obliged to record my disappointment at some of the tactics employed at certain points during the consultation. Of course everyone has the right to make their views known, of course they can take an opposite view, and of course they have the right to voice their opinion.
However, misinformation sadly became rumour which seemed to become fact in the eyes of some. Fire stations were said to be closing – notably in Heacham and Hingham – which was never among the proposals.
I was disappointed the Fire Brigade Union in Norfolk chose to begin a consultation lobbying against change several weeks before the draft business case had even been published.
I was also disappointed to see what I believe was an overly adversarial and sometimes aggressive tone employed by Norfolk County Council during the consultation. The corporate tone adopted was seriously disappointing, the official consultation was more often than not circumvented or not mentioned and personal and disrespectful comments from a few individual councillors were a real shame. What I found most remarkable, however, was that the County Council didn’t even want to find out if things could be done better for the people we serve or give the people of Norfolk the opportunity to have their say.
Norfolk County Council voted, without a single dissenting vote, to say that such a study would not be in the best interests of the county. In other words, our elected county councillors registered clearly that they were opposed to allowing a study to find out if there was a better way to keep the county safer, and to allowing the Norfolk community to express its views.
This was particularly surprising given the Minister of State for Policing and the Fire Service had urged the authority to ‘work constructively with your PCC’ on the issue of fire governance and public consultation.
I think the people of Norfolk would and should have expected better and indeed it is to their great credit that against this background they still voted for change.
It must be acknowledged, however, that Norfolk County Council’s official response to my proposal was thorough, considered and welcome.
Of course, questions were raised during the consultation and, to my mind, listening to and responding to those challenges is an important part of any genuine, healthy consultation – otherwise you are simply taking part in the dissemination of information. Questions were captured as they were raised and a full and detailed Questions and Answer section was developed on the OPCCN website.
An independent panel – consisting of the Chairs on the Independent Advisory Group, Ethics Committee and Audit Committee – was constituted to look at the more than 1,800 comments and correspondence received and to establish what the main questions and concerns were. These areas are addressed in this report and I thank the panel for their time and for offering, what I believe is important independent analysis. Their conclusions and subsequent responses are included in this report.
One phrase that continued to crop up during the consultation was that my proposal ‘made sense’ and that two blue light services working side by side in terms of governance was ‘common sense’. Seeing the two services working more closely together was seen as a ‘no-brainer’.
In January 2017, Parliament enacted a new legal duty for the three main emergency services to collaborate. This legislation provided PCCs with the opportunity to explore whether collaboration could be made simpler, faster and better, with specific reference to police and fire & rescue. Was there a better way of working? Parliament asked.
I said from the outset I was not interested in merger. Even with a change of governance, firefighters would remain firefighters and police officers would remain police officers. We are talking about two distinct services with distinct cultures, histories and traditions; both are rightfully proud to serve. That would not change and the two services would continue to retain their unique identities, roles and finances – one service’s savings would not fund the other, for example. However, I do believe that by sharing oversight and making the lines of governance much simpler and clearer, both services can work better together and achieve and deliver much more for the people of Norfolk.
This whole exploration of possibilities and options has been about the future of two highly valued public services, and about doing what is right in their best interests and the best interests of the people of Norfolk. I said from the start I would be guided by the evidence and would only make a decision on how to progress after hearing from the people of Norfolk and key stakeholders.
After careful consideration and weighing up all the evidence, I have decided that it is not yet the right time to submit a case to the Secretary of State.
Norfolk County Council’s continued opposition means it has not been possible to achieve local consensus. Given the nature of the change, the County Council’s co-operation and support – or lack thereof – has a significant impact on the likelihood that the change could be delivered successfully and in line with the business case.
As a result of these concerns, the deliverability of the project to implement a new governance model transferring governance to a Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner is subject to a higher risk. As a result, the current impasse with the Council means Option 3 has had to be downgraded, notwithstanding the potential benefits to the community.
I would hope that once the County Council understands the will of the Norfolk people is for change and that Norfolk people disagree with them, that Councillors will reconsider their position. However, if that is not the case then the risk of a Judicial Review by the County Council is high and, with other Judicial Reviews in other counties outstanding, I understand all too well the impact that could have on the county.
So, taking all of this carefully into account, I have decided to keep the situation under close review for the time being, on the clear understanding that, should circumstances change, A Case for Change can be submitted to the Secretary of State. The lights are amber, not red.
I also want to be clear that the status quo has gone; this whole process I have led has had the powerful effect of being a compelling catalyst for change. As a direct result of this work, I am pleased to announce that a reinvigorated Emergency Services Collaboration Board met for the first time on Monday. Of enormous significance, it agreed that A Case for Change should be the blueprint for the future, whoever oversees our public services. This is a welcome move and no doubt something that will also be of interest to Her Majesty’s inspectors during Norfolk Fire and Rescue’s upcoming inspection.
However, the proof of the pudding is always in the eating. As PCC, I will be monitoring progress around collaboration closely consistent with A Case for Change. To allow me full oversight and scrutiny, I will also request a seat on the Norfolk Fire and Rescue Authority.
I will monitor progress closely and revisit where we are early in the New Year, at which time we may also have the benefit of results from the national inspection of the Norfolk Fire & Rescue Service, and know where matters stand with regards to the outstanding judicial reviews in other counties.
Police and Crime Commissioner for Norfolk