- Welcome and introductions
Stephen Mold (SM)
Paul Fell (PF)
Helen King (HK)
Nicci Marzec (NM)
Louise Sheridan (LS)
CFO Mark Jones (MJ)
ACFO Rob Porter (RP)
ACO Paul Bullen (PB)
AM Kerry Blair (KB)
Nick Alexander (NA)
- Minutes and decisions of previous meeting
SM welcomed everyone to the meeting. Apologies were accepted from ACFO Shaun Hallam
- Budget setting 2023/2024
The Commissioner requires presentation of final budget proposals for Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service for 2023/2024 to include the capital programme. plus, treasury management and reserves strategies.
NA provided an overview of the revised Final 2023/24 NCFRA budget requirement.
NA highlighted that the revised report has taken into account the differences discussed in December and reflects where we are now following the provisional settlement.
The most significant improvement from the provisional settlement is the additional £437k in grant money which is higher was expected.
The Service Grant of £210k has also been added after removing the social care levy which was partially expected
It is anticipated that the pension grant will continue to be given on a flat cash basis as has been the case in previous years.
Although not included within the Core Spending Power, it was announced that precept referendum limits for 23/24 for Fire would be £5 and in line with local government of 2.99% for 24/25.
If taken, the £5 per Band D property would provide £1.533m and is included in the MTFP scenario.
The impact of the cost-of-living crisis causes considerable uncertainty on tax base levels. Indications from the unitary authorities are broadly in line with the previous MTFP assumption of 1.5% providing an overall increase of 1.46%. Whilst the taxbases are confirmed at the council meetings, the collection fund surplus or deficit information is outstanding for the North. The West’s has been confirmed. This information is finalised in mid-late January. Business Rates are not known until after 31/1/23, the statutory date. Best professional estimates are included and any variations from those in the draft budgets will be balanced by reserves as one year impacts. If additional funds, these will partially replenish the agreed reserves drawdowns for one off costs.
Last year, following the Chancellor’s announcement that the government mandated pay freeze would be lifted, a budget of £0.3m was included in 2022/23 for pay awards, based on an assumption of 2% across both fire fighters and staff.
Although no awards were budgeted in 2021 in line with the government’s direction, firefighters were awarded 1.75% in that year.
At a flat £1900 level, the pay awards for 2022 were substantially more than budgeted at 6.11% for staff. Whilst the firefighter pay award assumption is 5%, it is recognised that the offer was rejected, and a ballot is underway regarding potential strike action.
Whilst reserve levels are currently at a level to meet the challenges in 2023/24, as Northamptonshire still have the lowest reserves nationally, usage of them to balance the 2022/23 budget, underwrite some costs in 2023/24 and mitigate potential industrial action or pay award costs will place the reserves lower than the optimum..
As such, it is the view of the S151 officer that reserves will need to be rebuilt over the life of the MTFP, in particular earmarked reserves for specific purposes. The Chief Fire Officer shared this view.
It was noted that a temporary post for hydrant reparation work crosses the 2022/23 and 2023/24 financial years.
At the August Accountability Board, it was agreed that £33K was set aside for this post and is held in the Carry Forwards reserve. The anticipated drawdown from this reserve for the cost of the post within 2023/24 is £20K.
The Commissioner asked why this post was still vacant
RP advised that a suitable applicant was not identified when first advertised and will now be re-advertised.
On this, the Chief Fire Officer advised that the recruitment of a temporary hydrant inspection officer will not solve all of the problems we have in the county.
He stated developers continue to build sites which do not fulfil the legal requirement for hydrant points, and he raised a concern that some sites may be signed off without being properly inspected or connected.
MJ suggested that other councils are potentially enforcing this legal requirement differently, suspending the permission for developers to build on new sites until they can evidence that they have properly completed hydrant works on their current ones.
The Commissioner asked the Chief Fire Officer to provide him with the evidence of where this was happening, if he needed support, so that he could raise it with the appropriate Authorities.
Action – MJ to elevate hydrant risk on new developments via Northants Council Leaders and Chief Executives. SM also agreed to raise with the Minister if necessary.
There was a discussion about the revised MTFP after accounting for the adjustments, adding and identifying savings that the Chief Fire Officer is committing to.
The Commissioner was appreciative of the work undertaken by the Chief Fire Officer in identifying the variances on the operational firefighters budget in 2022/23 and proposing actions to take this forward in 2022/23 and 2023/24.
The estimated funding requirement for 2023/24 is £29.334m
Further efficiencies will need to be identified to balance future years in line with the 3-year external audit value for money Going Concern expectations.
The Chief Fire Officer stated that he has concerns regarding the requirement for year-on-year efficiency savings, particularly with rampant inflation adding that with zero based budgeting, he doesn’t understand why have efficiency savings applied after the fact.
HK advised that the 1% efficiency target is about making sure the service is looking at internal budgets and making sure that it is utilising technology and data to drive improvements. The zero-based budget reviews each year will highlight the increased costs and efficiencies which can we taken forward in future budgets.
PF advised there was a danger of conflicting two different principles – financial savings and efficiency savings. For example creating opportunities to invest in technology which ultimately saves time and manually processing and we needed to be clear what term related to a particular action or requirement.
HK added that there is a difference between cashable and non cashable savings and reiterated that the 2023/24 budget includes a significant drawdown from reserves.
Furthermore, given the current budget monitoring forecast for 2022/23, it is currently anticipated there is an overspend of £150K to be met and funding also needs to be ring-fenced to meet any potential industrial action costs.
Across the medium term there is a £294k deficit which is slightly better than anticipated.
Returning to Firefighter establishment, of 254 FTE from April 2023, with average strength expected to be 256.75.
Current projections are such that there will be 248 FTE on 1st April 2023, gradually rising to 260 at May and again in October before reducing to no lower than 256 throughout the remainder of the year.
The Chief Fire Officer advised that he is currently reviewing the establishment numbers given that he needs to seize control of the issues related to the 18-pump model. It is therefore likely that there will be a delay in future recruitment.
The Chief Fire Officer also confirmed that the lack of control on overtime previously identified is now being gripped.
There was a discussion about the CRMP and the 10-minute response times and rural cover.
The Commissioner is keen to discuss future investment in the south of the county in conjunction with the ECR review.
The Commissioner added that he is content to take a longer-term view on the ECR to ensure that the Service is fit for the future and what that looks like in terms of establishment and station coverage. It was agreed by the Commissioner that the final proposals for ECR needed to be completed by November 2023. It was further agreed that a revised terms of reference or agreement about what was to be included in the ECR needed to be prepared by the Chief Fire Officer for agreement.
There was a discussion about non deployable staff (referred to as abstractions in finance terms)
The Chief Fire Officer spoke about some of the non-deployable staff. He felt that historically, some cases may not have been as well managed as hoped, and he is addressing the support required from the joint HR function to support line managers in managing cases.
Returning to Capital Reserves, HK commented that these include disposal estimates which need to be delivered in a timely manner to most prudently help finance the capital programme.
As inflation levels reduce it is expected that this and a number of factors will bring us closer to a balanced budget for 2022/23.
NFRS is still the poorest in the country in terms of Reserves.
The Commissioner noted the Capital report.
NA highlighted concerns on the estates budget – running costs such as fuel, gas, electricity etc.
It was recognised that the Commercial team are doing really good work to identify efficiencies where possible and using the National Framework to secure the best deals possible.
The Commissioner thanked Nick and the Chief Officer team for the level of scrutiny and detail in report provided adding that each year the budget setting process is getting stronger and providing more reassurance.
HK confirmed that it will continue to evolve to a standalone budget overtime.
The Commissioner commented that it was an improvement on the previous Fire Authority Model and that the ambition pullback from level of scrutiny currently being applied.
From where we have come from since the Governance transfer in 2019 to now we have done incredibly well and we will continue to apply pressure on government to get a better financial envelope for NFRS.
The Chief Fire Officer agreed that the governance arrangements and financial position of the Service has improved greatly but need to now demonstrate this to stakeholders who still complain about have an aging fleet and substandard buildings.
The Chief Fire Officer thanked Nick Alexander and his two Assistant Chief Fire Officers for the good work done to deliver the revised budget.
The final budget proposed for Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service for 2023/2024 budget was approved subject to final precept decisions by the Commissioner.
The Commissioner recognised and thanked everyone for the significant work that had been undertaken to get the 2023/2024 budget proposal to the current position given the challenging financial times.
He acknowledged that this year again demonstrated a better understanding and was pleased with the additional assurance this provided.
He was assured that the budget proposals presented to him allowed him to set a balanced budget but recognised that this still left challenges both in 2022/23 and in the medium-term financial forecast.
He agreed to recommendations from the Emergency Cover Review being prolonged to November 2023, to properly inform future budgets.
The proposed budget as contained within the paper was approved in principle subject to the precept considerations by the Police, Fire and Crime Panel in February 2023.
- Performance update report
The Commissioner requires a report of the performance against the measures and metrics contained within the CRMP and internal NFRS performance framework to the end of Quarter 2 for 2022/2023.
Area manager Kerry Blair provided an overview
Due to the relatively low numbers on some metrics and the current difficulty extracting data the report has been compiled using raw data only and is not considered against the populations of Northamptonshire (per thousand population as reported at year end).
PB confirmed the installation of a new software installation should help with this and is expected to be available by the end of March.
In Q2 2022/23 there was a significant increase in the number of fire incidents following a prolonged period of hot weather in July and August, compounded by an unusually dry year.
As a result, several fire types for that period show an increase in the number of incidents attended.
Of most concern is the number of deliberate fires – considerable work is being done with partners to try to mitigate these in the future led by the Prevention team under Lisa Bryan and the joint Arson Task Force.
The Commissioner was interested to know more about the work being done in schools to educate young people about the harm setting deliberate fires and making malicious calls (typically seen during the school holidays) to ensure that the OPFCC Youth Team were also engaged in prevention activity.
RP agreed to update PF outside of the meeting.
PF updated that the theme for this year’s County Schools Challenge is ‘Deliberate fire setting’.
Injuries from fires continue to decline.
False alarms continue to increase but overall call for service continue to decline.
KB advised that a high percentage of false alarms are from commercial premises which they are trying to resolve. Again, the data available makes it difficult to understand what caused the false alarm.
There was a further discussion about the number of malicious and False alarms with good intention (FAGI) calls – The Commissioner asked if there were any comms that could be done around these to help reduce them.
KB advised that there is a schools education programme covering malicious calls.
On average there are around 4 per month. Good call handling practices and a challenge process is in place.
FAGI incidents are more difficult to reduce.
There was a discussion about pump availability.
First pump mobilisation times for all incidents have slightly reduced when compared to last year; overall turnout times have remained the same.
Travel times for all incident categories has increased which has led to increased full response times in every category.
Most notably is a one-minute increase for RTC responses.
Second pump response times have also reduced, again RTC is the poorest performing category with an increase of over two minutes.
Further work to understand the reasons for this is underway for example, looking at where the incident took place and where the appliance was dispatched from.
Northants is a rural county and fire stations are situated in conurbations where there is the highest fire risk from dwellings which is not where many RTC calls arise from.
There was a discussion about mobile data technology and the use of telematics.
The Chief Fire Officer advised that NFRS is working on an old system which does not have the capability to dynamically manage the dispatch of the nearest appliance.
There was a discussion about the implementation of the new Vision system – A system which is designed to ensure that all call handlers can respond to every caller in the most appropriate and efficient manner and dispatch the most appropriate resource for the type of incident.
There was a discussion on sickness levels.
Absence due to sickness continue to fall but remains high.
Stress related sickness accounts for one third of all fire staff sickness.
Sickness levels across NFRS are being reviewed by the Chief Fire Officer who advised that there has been a lack of consistency in management of sickness in stations and work is underway to ensure that station managers know the policy and apply it fairly and appropriately.
This also includes better OH support and referral.
PB added that OH Services are being brought in-house with significant investment. The new Head of OH starts in March and will look at existing contracts and how to improve both the service provided and the management of cases.
The Commissioner welcomed the report and that in the next quarter, investments in technology would improve the Services’ ability to understand and interrogate their data. He further welcomed the fact that overall incidents were down and injuries from fire related incidents remained low.
The Commissioner acknowledged that there had been an increase in fires over the summer of 2022 but accepted that the service understood the reasons for this and were taking the appropriate action.
The Commissioner was pleased to see a better understanding of sickness and welcomed the Chief Fire Officer interventions about better supporting and managing the sickness processes. He looked forward to seeing the fruits of this.
- Strategic outcomes requirements letter update
As part of the budget setting process for 2022/2023, the Commissioner and Chief Fire Officer agreed a set of strategic outcome requirements outlining areas that were to be delivered in this financial year.
The Commissioner requires a paper which demonstrates the progress made to date, on the delivery of these agreed outcomes and measures.
Chief Fire Officer Mark Jones provided an overview
The paper submitted in advance of the meeting was taken as read.
As previously stated, MJ confirmed that he is committed to a reduction in fire fighter recruitment which will impact the Services diverse employment profile.
The Commissioner asked if the Chief Fire Officer was content with the work underway to improve the culture of the Service following the HMICFRS inspection.
The Chief Fire Officer replied that he did not think that the issues identified around poor culture were endemic within the Service and that it was one or two people who needed to change their attitudes/behaviour or leave the organisation.
ACFO Rob Porter is also analysing previous grievance and disciplinary cases to see what can be learnt from these.
There was a discussion about how EDI was being taken forward and the ACFO and KB advised that it was and at 11% NFRS were one of the better recruiters of female firefighters and staff in the country.
HK suggested that a temperature check from the internal IPSOS culture survey may be helpful to understand whether women and other views were consistent with those of the senior management..
NM advised that there were currently over 800 internal responses to the survey.
Moving on to Ongoing updates, there was a discussion about overarching data sharing agreements.
The Commissioner was particularly interested in this as he is keen to see closer working between Police and Fire
PB confirmed there is an agreement for Enabling Services. There is also a data sharing agreement with the Joint Arson Task Force.
The OPFCC and NRFS are one entity so a data sharing agreement may not be required but it would be helpful if there was one specifically between Northants Police and NFRS.
PB agreed to check
There was a discussion about the Emergency Cover Review (ECR).
PF suggested that the original Terms Of Reference for the ECR may need to be rewritten in light of the fact that the OCR is now complete and the Chief Fire Officer is reviewing the 18 pump model which was implemented without an evidence based transparent costing or rationale and is unaffordable in its current form, being staffed by overtime and bank arrangements.
It was agreed that this would be prudent so that in November both the Commissioner and Chief Fire Officer are clear on what has been tasked and what is being delivered.
Action – CFO to ensure ECR progresses and to review TOR and discuss with SM to make sure on same page.
Action – PB to establish whether or not there is an overarching data sharing agreement in place between NFRS and Northamptonshire Police.
The Commissioner was assured that the majority of the requirements of the Strategic Outcomes Requirements Letter were being fulfilled. However, he did comment on the need for both Fire and Police to continue to explore the benefits of closer and collaborative working for the community.
Service support standards – The Chief Fire Officer advised that he will work with PB on Service Support Standards adding that he is fully supportive of moving staff across to Enabling Services as long as they provide a good service.
A better understanding of what the service can and can’t have and the processes that sit around these requests would be helpful.
PB better communication is required and gave an example of a station that needs new showers, but it also needs a new boiler. Sorting that and the associated work required has to come first. In the past, new showers would have been installed without addressing the boiler issue.