Should we charge other county councils more to use our fire service?

PUBLISHED: 08:28 11 November 2019 | UPDATED: 15:16 12 November 2019

One person was trapped in a car after it overturned on the clockwise M25 carriageway between Junction 22 and Junction 23, and was freed by the fire service.

One person was trapped in a car after it overturned on the clockwise M25 carriageway between Junction 22 and Junction 23, and was freed by the fire service.

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Should we charge more for our neighbouring counties to use Herts fire services?

Should we charge more for our neighbouring counties to use Herts fire services?

That was the subject of a debate at County Hall over whether an hourly rate should be introduced for Cambs, Beds, Essex and Bucks.

Currently Hertfordshire's Fire Service charges £322 every time its called to an incident in a neighbouring county, but that flat charge takes no account of the number of appliances that are involved or the number of hours they remain there.

So now fire chiefs at Hertfordshire County Council have drawn up plans to charge by the hour, which means instead of charging £322 per incident, the charge would increase to £322 an hour.

If an appliance was at an incident for two hours the charge would double to £644. And if there were more than one appliance there, the charge could multiply further.

It's been estimated that a change in the way the charges are levied could bring in an additional £86,000 a year.

At last Thursday's meeting, the move was backed by a Conservative majority of the county council's community safety and waste management cabinet panel - despite opposition from Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors.

And now it will be considered by a meeting of the Conservative-led cabinet, which could give the fire service the go-ahead to renegotiate the arrangements with bordering services.

The cabinet panel heard that it is common practice for authorities to ask for the support of neighbouring fire services, when required.

But Herts is called on to support other authorities more than it asks for help from its neighbours.

According to the report, over the past three years Hertfordshire was called on to give assistance to Cambridge on 337 occasions, Bedfordshire 236, Essex 364 and Buckinghamshire 91.

But in return Hertfordshire asked for far less support from their neighbours - with data suggesting they received assistance from Cambridge on five occasions, Bedfordshire 89, Essex 90 and Buckinghamshire 45.

The data shows that Hertfordshire gave 353 hours of assistance to London fire crews - and received 24 hours of assistance back.

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Assistant chief fire officer Gus Cuthbert said that historically the reciprocal agreement had been fairly balanced.

But now Hertfordshire had become a net provider with neighbouring services calling on the county far more often.

Mr Cuthbert estimated that the change in charging formula could bring in around £86,000 of additional income each year.

Alternatively, he said, other counties may release their crews more quickly - making them available for service within Hertfordshire.

He said the changes would not impact on the support Hertfordshire offered to other services, but was about recovering the costs they incurred as a result.

Conservative county councillor Terry Hone - who is also executive member, community safety and waste management - stressed that this was not a profit-making exercise and that the fire service was only allowed to recoup its costs.

The money that is recouped will not be ring-fenced for the fire service but will go to Hertfordshire County Council.

During the meeting Liberal Democrat councillor John Hale, for St Albans, raised concerns at a lack of data on how much it cost the authority to send an appliance to another authority.

And Labour councillor Judi Billing, for Hitchin, expressed concerns that the proposed changes could stop another authority asking for help or releasing an appliance to avoid additional costs.

And she also pointed to the lack of a way to ring-fence the additional income for the fire service.

Fire officer Mr Cuthbert said professional fire officers would always keep the resources that were required to deal with an incident in a safe and effective manner.

But he did say that in the current system there was no incentive to release them either.

According to the report the £322 charge is set by the Local Government Association, and rises with inflation.

Executive member for community safety and waste management Councillor Hone said: "The council tax payers would expect us to recover the costs."

The decision will be made at a county council cabinet meeting. The next one is scheduled for Monday November 25 at 2pm but nothing is on the agenda yet.

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