Firefighters in Milton Keynes and Buckinghamshire want public’s support for £10-a-year tax rise

Fire chief Jason Thelwell, left, at Wednesday's meeting
Fire chief Jason Thelwell, left, at Wednesday's meeting

Fire chiefs in Milton Keynes and Buckinghamshire will next week be launching a bid to get the public’s support for a £10-a-year increase in their portion of the council tax.

Fire chiefs in Milton Keynes and Buckinghamshire will next week be launching a bid to get the public’s support for a £10-a-year increase in their portion of the council tax.

A public consultation exercise on the local Public Safety Plan is due to start on Monday (Sept 23) with fire chiefs set to ask the community whether they would prefer to invest or risk cuts to the service.

They say the blue light service is so underfunded that they are coming to a crunch where the only action they could take to save money is to wield the axe to fire stations and front line staff.

In the last 10 years the number of firefighters covering Bucks and MK has been reduced by around 100, the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) was told.

“It’s not sustainable to continue with the current funding model,” said Jason Thelwell, the Chief Fire Officer at Wednesday’s meeting of Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes Fire Authority. “The only way we can get certainty in funding is through the council tax.”

Mr Thelwell told the LDRS that £10-a-year would allow the authority to invest in services.

Councillor members of the committee were told that Buckinghamshire is the poor relation of fire services, nationally.

The Bucks service gets about £62 from average council tax bills, compared to £95 charged in Central Bedfordshire. This has caused an odd situation in Woburn Sands, which straddles the Bedfordshire-Milton Keynes border. There, neighbours pay different bills for their fire protection depending on which side of the border they live on.

While supporting the fire service, Conservative Cllr Charlie Clare (Buckingham West) was keen to make sure the authority did not “trip itself up” by failing to present the up to date funding picture.

He said the finances for next year have been improved by recent Government announcements.

“The landscape has changed, it may only last for a year, but we need to be very careful that we are not undermining the good work done by the Chancellor of the Exchequer,” said Cllr Clare. “We need to tread carefully.”

Mark Hemming, the authority’s director of finance & assets, said recent announcements had given “more reassurance”. It means that money is now being put back into the service.

But Mr Thelwell added that even though the finances have improved there was a lack of certainty. Increasing the council tax reduces the uncertainty.

“We have had a change in two months, and it could change again in another two months,” he said.

“Because we have the lowest council tax, and increases are capped, the gap between us and other fire authorities are widening. The only way to get certainty is a council tax investment.”

The committee was told that the consultation document’s wording had been changed to reflect the current situation.