Last week the UK Government announced plans to transfer responsibility for fire and rescue services to police and crime commissioners in England. I argued that Wales should not be left behind.
We know strong local accountability works. It ensures public services serve the public. It gives them a human face and makes them more responsive to local need. It saves money.
Strong local accountability has enabled me as police and crime commissioner to deliver more officers and less crime for less money. Since 2013, crime and anti-social behaviour are down 11%, we have 30 more officers and I have cut the police precept – what the public pay – by 5% in real terms.
We know that we have more to do. Further cuts will force us to work more closely with others. And there is no one the police work more closely with than the fire service. I am constantly struck by how productive that relationship is. I am also struck by how much further it could go.
Joint accountability for both services would make it easier to share tasks, like tackling antisocial behaviour, searching for missing people or road safety. In counties like Carmarthenshire, Powys, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire, the benefits would be huge.
Distance is always a problem in rural areas. Sharing buildings, which we already do, is a great start. But by sharing tasks we could provide much better coverage over our huge area.
We would still need two services. We must not lose the historic traditions and experience of each, which have served us so well for decades. But you could reduce the costs and direct more money to the front line.
For example, Mid and West Wales Fire Authority spends £72,000 each year on allowances for its members and £1m on corporate and democratic services. The fire service employs five people on salaries above £100,000. Dyfed Powys Police employs two. Most of this could be saved and invested in front line services – more officers, better training, better kit.
So far my approach has met predictable resistance. Most disappointingly, Welsh ministers refuse to consider anything except greater powers for themselves. But devolution is not a one-way street to Cardiff.
Modern devolution should work seamlessly for the public. The Assembly is here to stay. PCCs are here to stay. We should both stick to the principle that power should rest as close to the people as possible.
Local accountability improves services and saves money. We have achieved it for the police. We can achieve it, with the Welsh Government, for fire and rescue services.
Where there is a will, there is a way. So, I repeat my call to anyone who cares about serving Wales: let’s find a way to modern devolution; let’s find a way to put local people in control.
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