1 Welcome and introductions
Stephen Mold (SM)
Paul Fell (PF)
Helen King (HK)
Nicci Marzec (NM)
Louise Sheridan (LS)
CFO Mark Jones (MJ)
ACFO Shaun Hallam (SH)
ACFO Rob Porter (RP)
ACO Paul Bullen (PB)
Nick Alexander (NA)
2 Minutes and decisions of previous meeting
SM welcomed everyone to the meeting.
– There were no apologies
3 Budget proposal 2023/2024
The Commissioner requests a report outlining the draft budget proposals and requirements for Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service for the period 2023/2024.
This should include:
- Proposals for required budget for 2023/2024
- Any requested investment proposals
- Any proposed or required efficiency or savings proposals and plans
- Revised realistic capital programme
- Revised MTFP
- The Commissioner thanked the Chief Fire Officer and Nick Alexander for the paper provided and for their openness on the numbers.
- He confirmed that the Home Office have given permission for all Fire and Rescue Authorities precept flexibility of £5 on a Band D Property.
- Returning to the 2023/24 budget requirement as presented in the paper, the Commissioner was keen to understand why the budget for Fire Fighters had increased by 17%. (By contrast, the increase to the budget for police officers was considerably lower at 6%).
- The Commissioner wanted to know what big change had occurred to the Operating Model to explain this increase particularly as response times have remained stable
- The Commissioner further commented that the unfunded pay award for Fire Fighters has not yet been resolved and recognises that the budget assumes a pay offer of 5% which when added to the other pressures, leaves a £1.29m deficit.
- The Chief Fire Officer explained that there has been a £248k cost increase due to changes in the profile of the rank structure and establishment checks have been completed to ensure every role is now mapped.
- The Chief Fire Officer confirmed that overtime makes up a large proportion and he is looking into the causation of this to understand exactly what overtime is being paid for, adding that Station Managers and Group Mangers need to be more aware.
- The Commissioner stated that the public need to see the value of the additional £5 precept charge for 2022/23 and the potential for a further £5 in 2023/24. As it is currently not clear from the proposed budget what additional value they are getting.
- The Chief Fire Officer commented that NFRS has never operationalised its finance, but he has a plan to make that happen adding that the budget needs to be operational.
- The Commissioner again questioned if response times are fundamentally the same, what has changed in terms of risk and the appetite to risk.
- The Chief Fire Officer advised that it is to do with the on-call cover and risks associated with this, with Monday to Saturday cover being the issue. This is being considered as part of the Emergency Cover Review.
- The Commissioner commented that the long awaited ECR is now critical as we cannot resolve the budget issue until we have it.
- There was a discussion about the inflationary pressures and pump availability.
- HK advised that the methodology for the budget is zero-based budgeting in order to calculate the majority of the budgets and budget holders have been fully consulted. Savings will have to be made to meet the envelope available.
- HK also reminded the Chief Officer team that it is for the service to identify what savings they wish to make to balance within their financial envelope based on their operational requirements.
- When the settlement comes, it is not going to change the envelope by very much. The Tax base won’t change, any inflation on RSG won’t make a massive difference. Even if settlement and Business Rates went up by 10% it still wouldn’t bridge the gap. the Chief Officer Team need to bridge the gap.
- There was a discussion about the 12 additional fire fighters recruited which the previous Chief Fire Officer said would manifest in some savings – clearly this was not the case and the savings have not been delivered as such the Budget has been zero based to reflect the need to deliver the current operational availability model which was implemented by the service during covid which is expected will have to be reviewed as it is an unsustainable position that cannot be funded within the current or future financial envelopes available.
- The Chief Fire Officer confirmed that he can make changes, to make sure that the PFCC has the legally required balanced budget but the appetite for what comes from that is the debate. The PFCC agreed with this but reiterated the point that the Chief Fire Officer needed to propose an affordable model that could then be considered.
- The Chief Fire officer advised that granularity on what is causing overtime is his next phase of work
There was a discussion about pump availability which has increased from and a need to determine what this needs to be.
- SH advised that during Covid NFRS increased the use of bank staff to keep 18 appliances on the run, this was to provide additional resilience due to potential absence. Despite this, the reliance on bank was reduced due to on-call working from home. As we have got used to living with Covid, On-Call staff have returned back to their normal working practices increasing the reliance on additional support at overtime rates to maintain 18 appliances.
- Returning to the rising cost of overtime, HK challenged on the £735k cost adding that there was clearly no line of sight on this, and it was clear that the previous Chief Fire Officer had made promises that could not be met.
- Paul Bullen asked if a return to the 16-pump model would help close some of the gap.
- The Commissioner reiterated that an affordable model would need to be prioritised
- The Chief Fire Officer advised that the massive Capital deficit inherited from the County Council was the issue; adding that they had been reprehensible in their dereliction of running the Service prior to the transfer of governance.
- The Chief Fire Officer added that NFRS need modern constructed stations that are in the right places. In his opinion, many of the existing premises are not fit for purpose particularly in relation to sleeping facilities resulting in having Fire Fighters having to sleep in accommodation that is not fit for purpose.
- There was a discussion about the reduction in staffing costs and increase in enabling services costs, which was lower. NA advised that some staff costs have reduced due to the TUPE process for enabling services and the ES costs also included efficiencies and savings. PB confirmed that Enabling services had made changes within their budget.
- The Chief Fire Officer suggested that this area requires further scrutiny as the Enabling Service arrangement could look costly for fire.
- HK advised that NFRS could not compare their support services costs pre governance to post governance as services for a cost centre differ significantly to services required to deliver a separate organisation.
- There was a discussion about estates costs and the Chief Fire Officer perceived that NFRS were not receiving a comparative level of estates services
- HK advised that accounting valuations of all land and buildings takes place every year for Fire and NA and HK set out the Land and buildings valuations contained within the accounts for fire and Police as financial asset context.
- The Commissioner advised that the Chief Fire Officer needs to reconsider the 18, 16, 14 Pump availability model and the placement of stations. He will debate this with the Chief Fire Officer when his review of the ECR and recommendations arising from it are completed.
- He was cognisant of the fact that this review may highlight areas which may need further consideration and discussion.
- The Chief Fire Officer said that his discussions with Nick Alexander during the two months that he has been helpful but the system of information gathering by the Fire service (for example what the service holds on overtime and performance) needs improvement as it takes days to get info that should be able to get in 3 clicks.
- The Commissioner reiterated that he would support investment if required when the Chief Fire Officer identifies via his ECR review a model he is comfortable with which provides agreed and evidenced optimum availability cover This has to come with options from the Service about what other things they can do to reduce costs. Need a range of options accepting that some will be more palatable than others.
- PF added that policing has faced similar issues. Closing front counters was not a popular decision and the public were unhappy, but the decision had to be taken and was backed up with statistics that showed less than 4 people on average visited them. The point was that options with associated risks needed to be provided for consideration.
- Returning to the 18-pump model during Covid where SH advised the service had not appreciated that running an 18-appliance availability was different to now. HK advised that cost profiles and expenditure in all services post covid were different to during covid and suggested they use NA to model these and asked how she could support the service in their work to understand and evidence this
- This is in relation to needing more people to sustain the same level of cover particularly the sleeping risk at nigh time where resource is low, but the risk is higher.
- There was a discussion about Capital and Reserves. There are no further savings to be made here so savings can only be found in Service Delivery
- HK reiterated the point that NFRS have found themselves in a position where the money they said they needed is lower than they were allocated and is vastly different to what they are spending. In fact the current year’s spending profile is vastly different to every year post governance (pre, during and post covid) and that 2022/23 is the first year NFRS have ever overspent, despite the budget being way more than they advised they needed.
- This is a serious challenge as the Chief Fire Officer has to manage within the agreed budget envelope so will need to find more innovative ways to manage within that.
- There was a discussion about the MTFP.
- HK advised that ideally, we would want to get to a 10-year MTFP to ensure we can build in peaks and troughs, but it relies on effective operational plans to ensure the financial strategy reflects those plans.
- SH advised that Covid masked a lot of this overspend. HK advised that we claimed additional grants from the HO to fund the additional services and costs being undertaken during covid which were different to service BAU. The service is no longer forecasting covid sickness or operational pressures and no more grants are likely so the overspend needs to be addressed and it needs to be addressed quickly.
- The Commissioner confirmed that he is happy to find innovative ways to support the Chief Fire Officer – The tri service model for example. However, he reiterated that he could not approve an unbalanced budget.
- The PFCC thanked the Chief Fire officer for his work in identifying the budget need on a zero basis and for recognising that he will return to the January Accountability Board with a proposal for a balanced budget which reflects the settlement.
- HK agreed to work with NA of what could be drawdown from Reserves, with the Commissioner agreeing he supported this use as a principal where it was right and appropriate.
- HK advised on the funding elements which would not be known until the end of January – namely Income from Business rates and the position on the collection fund – the budget and precept considerations will use estimates for these as in previous years.
- Finalising the discussion, the Commissioner stated that there may have to be difficult decisions taken or choices made but it is right to do that now to ensure stability for the longer term and that will put NFRS on a flight path that’s puts them in a good position in 5 years’ time.
Action – The Chief Fire Officer to consider options available to him that would allow the Commissioner to agree a balanced budget for the Fire Service for 2023/2024. This is to be presented and considered at the January Accountability Board meeting.
The Commissioner welcomed and thanked the Chief Fire Officer Team and Head of Finance for the work that had gone into the production of the paper presented to him. He was assured by the fact that he now had increased transparency over the true costs of the current chosen NFRS operating model.
He was also assured that it was becoming clearer as to what the additional cost pressures faced this year had resulted from and which was reflected in the draft 2023/24 budget proposals.
The Commissioner confirmed that as a principle he was content to support some one-off pressures from reserves but that the current budget request was not affordable based on the current projected figures relating to national and local taxation funding streams.
The Commissioner required the Chief Fire Officer to consider options available to him that would allow the Commissioner to agree a balanced budget for the Fire Service for 2023/2024 at the January Accountability Board meeting.
- ACFO Rob Porter provided an update on the potential for Industrial action.
- The Chief Officer team are working to understand who is like to work and who is likely to strike.
- There is a degree of confidence that the Service will be able to maintain 5 – 6 appliances on the run.
- There was a discussion on the options available through the NFCC and the Home Office to get additional resource which would be explored where possible.
- The Ministerial expectation is that 25% of appliances will be available nationally. Using the traffic light system, over 30% cover is considered green and 10% red.
- The Commissioner asked if 14 appliances is usually the minimum requirement and 18 is optimum how does that equate.
- The Chief Officer advised that the last strike was due to a dispute on pensions. The current dispute is on pay which effects everyone so it is impossible to predict how many Fire Fighters will walk out.
- There was a discussion about Fire Fighters with dual contracts across wholetime and On call
- Around 60% of On Call firefighters have a dual contract
- It is likely that a mix of officers and fire staff will work but there is currently no certainty on numbers – potentially around 59 people will work but there are still too many variables.
- In addition, it is not yet known what form of strike action will be taken.
- Will have more clarity by mid-February and then a further 2 weeks before it is confirmed what form of action Fire Fighters are taking.
- There was a discussion about use of Military and whether they could provide a level of additional cover.
- The initial approximate cost is £25k for 10 people to give 24-hour cover for 7 days. (£150k cost first week then £75k after that)
- There was a discussion about the LRF and a request to start training. 12 Brigade is where they will come from. This will start on 9th January.
- The Chief Fire Officer provided examples of what other Fire and Rescue Services are planning to do. Derbyshire for example are offering £457 per day to come to work.
- The approach being advised by the Chief Fire Officer was for NFRS to train additional cover.
- The Chief Fire Officer advised that this would be to enact a MACA scheme (military Aid Civil Authorities).
- The Chief Fire Officer confirmed he will put his recommendation in writing to the Commissioner with a request to invest in the training now.
- NA asked is the assumption that there will be a £75k request for training from reserves plus the cost of PPE
- Recognising this had been a verbal discussion without specific costings, HK asked for the service to communicate what would be needed and what for so that the PFCC could consider and set aside a ringfenced sum of money which would likely need to be funded from reserves.
- The Commissioner asked the Chief Fire Officer to write to him setting out the position and the request for funding support and to provide a recommendation for what to do in event of industrial action.
Action – The Chief Fire Officer to write to the Commissioner to set out the position, his request for funding support and to provide a recommendation for what to do in event of industrial action.
- No further business was raised.