As we brace for the tail of Storm Jonas we should spare a thought for the emergency services. We saw in Cumbria what steely determination they display. Coastguard, mountain rescue, police, fire and ambulance crews all serve on while we shelter at home. They are there when the cry goes up: “rescue me!”
Cumbria’s experience showed how many organisations keep us safe. We’ve seen the same here in mid-Wales, where bad weather is not entirely unknown.
Many of these services are run by volunteers. The spine of this great effort, though, are usually the police and fire services. If you are caught in a flood or trapped in a motorway pile up, they are there. They work hand in glove.
That’s why plans to bring fire and police together in England make so much sense. They will make a joint response easier, which means they will keep people safer.
Joint call centres will ensure the right skills get to the accident straight away. Shared buildings mean better coverage across remote rural areas. Shared skills mean more qualified, experienced officers with a wider range of support. Single, locally accountable, oversight means you and I get the service we need for our area. And we have a say in it.
Or we would, except these proposals do not apply in Wales. Welsh Government controls the fire and rescue service and they do not want to share.
In England, the services will retain their identity at the front line but merge support and hierarchies. Both will be directly accountable through police and crime commissioners.
In Wales, nothing. More talk, more boards, more ministerial working groups, more centralisation, no doubt more legislation. But action? Not likely.
Welsh ministers reject any suggestion of joint accountability out of hand. They let down Wales as they do it. This shouldn’t be a surprise: for years now, the Welsh public sector has been a reform-free zone. It’s no surprise that complacency in the party that has ruled Wales for so long has led to complacency in government.
I’ve written before how joining accountability for police and fire could secure more for the front line of those great services. We could lose the £70,000 we pay each year towards Fire Authority allowances. We could cut senior salaries. (Mid and West Wales has five officers on over £100,000. Its budget is £45m. Dyfed Powys Police now have two salaries above £100,000. Its budget is £98m). We could reduce dramatically the £1m spent each year on ‘corporate and democratic services’. All that means more for officers – the people who actually keep us safe.
You will see this happen in England over the next few years. It requires clear, powerful local accountability.
It could happen in Wales. Nothing stops the Welsh Government passing funding – and therefore accountability – for fire and rescue services through the four Welsh PCCs. They already do that for some police community support officers.
Where there is a will there is a way. Strong politicians give people power. Weak ones insist on taking it. Wales does not deserve to be held back by the pettiness of its political class, obsessed by how much they control, or more to the point, are seen to control.
Fortunately, there is an event not long from now where the will will have its way. Elections for the Assembly and police and crime commissioners fall on the same day.
Let’s hope they free us for more imaginative government. The message from Wales at this election? Rescue me!