Costs saved, lives lost

The deaths of four young firefighters is a tragic indictment of our unwillingness to invest in publi

The tragic deaths of four young firefighters in a blaze in a vegetable packing warehouse in Warwickshire is the biggest loss of life in a single incident for the UK fire service since the 1970s.

As Conservative Leader on the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority I vividly remember the shock at the deaths of two firefighters in 2004 in Bethnal Green after a period of over 12 years during which no London firefighter had been killed on duty.

Of course a thorough investigation needs to be conducted into the cause of the fire and the operational decisions made on the day but several features of the Warwickshire incident merit further examination.

The dead firefighters appear to be "retained" firefighters who, rather like lifeboat men, rush from their ordinary jobs to attend incidents usually in their community as and when they are needed.

Unlike many fulltime firefighters, especially those in London who often live many miles from the fire stations on which they are based, retained firefighters are often well known locally, hence the loss in the town of Alcester will be keenly felt.

Beyond metropolitan areas, the retained service provides the core response and in counties such as Devon, Dorset, Norfolk and Lincolnshire retained firefighters far outnumber their fulltime colleagues.

In the strike of 2003 the vast majority of retained firefighters, most of whom are not members of the ever-militant Fire Brigades Union, worked on, not least because they could not betray their local communities.

Their reward for this loyalty was a stubborn refusal by this government to pay them proper pensions on the small retainer and call-out fees they receive and a betrayal by the Fire Brigade Employers (a bizarre collection of male, geriatric county councillors and neanderthal old Labour and SNP politicians from Scotland) to properly recognise their union and give it proper negotiating rights at national level.

Also becoming abundantly clear from the Warwickshire incident is the failure of the building's owner to install a proper sprinkler system.

There are dozens of fires every week, which would barely qualify a fire brigade turnout if a sprinkler system, had been installed. Schools in particular are vulnerable to arson attacks and about two a week are destroyed in a fire in which a sprinkler system would have prevented major damage and allowed lessons to resume the following week.

One of the few (in fact only two) occasions when I have threatened to resign was when my own borough council wished to rebuild a primary school in my ward that had been destroyed by fire without sprinklers in order to save a few thousand pounds.

There are still stupid councillors and frankly negligent planning officers up and down the country agreeing new public buildings without sprinklers.

If there is any silver lining to this dreadful cloud over Warwickshire I hope it is proper recognition for retained firefighters and far more political pressure on fire prevention and protection in new buildings.

Sadly I suspect the fire minister, Parmjit Dhandra, the fourth minister in three years, will dust off his black tie, rush to Alcester, mouth some platitudes and invest no more money in public safety.

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.