Fire board criticised

MEMBERS of Tayside Fire and Rescue Board have been criticised by the Accounts Commission for failing to live up to their responsibilities to look after public funds.

The Commission alleged that councillors had ignored “compelling evidence” in their consideration of the downgrading of Balmossie Fire Station.

The proposal to replace the full-time crew at Balmossie with a retained crew overnight led to a bitter row and political infighting. Chief Fire Officer Stephen Hunter had twice put the proposal forward in order to save money so that a full-time crew could be switched to Forfar where managers felt there was a higher risk.

Official figures, which were disputed by the Fire Brigades’ Union (FBU), indicated that Balmossie only dealt with a few overnight blazes.

The matter became very high profile and led to claim and counter-claim by politicians. A petition was raised which attracted thousands of signatures in an emotive campaign for retention of the status quo.

The Accounts Commission considered the Balmossie situation as part of its review of the fire service.

Its report stated that the proposal to downgrade night cover at Balmossie would have better aligned £500,000 of resources to risk.

It continued: “A range of views on the matter were received as part of the consultation process, the vast majority of which were from members of the FBU who were strongly opposed to the proposal.

However, in a press release on Friday, Fraser McKinlay, controller of audit at Audit Scotland, provided an update on the original report.

He stated: “My report on Tayside Fire and Rescue, published on Thursday, included a brief comment on the fire and rescue board’s decision to reject a proposal to change the night staffing arrangements of Balmossie fire station. The proposal was to move from using wholetime officers to on-call at Balmossie, due to its relatively low activity and risk, and use these resources to provide a daytime crew at Forfar station, which was identified as having greater risk. The board consulted on this proposal.

“It is now clear that the vast majority of the responses to the consultation were from members of the public in Tayside rather than members of the Fire Brigades Union. I am grateful for this clarification and we will be learning any lessons for future audit work.”

The board decided to reject the scheme although its then convener, Councillor Ken Lyall, supported Mr Hunter’s view.

Mr Lyall fell foul of party colleagues over his stance and was subsequently suspended from the SNP group on Perth and Kinross Council. He later quit politics entirely.

The commission’s report states: “Elected members represent the views and need of the community and are not obliged to automatically follow the advice of officers.

“However, they need to balance local concerns with wider corporate and regional considerations.

“Given the endorsement and promotion of the principles of integrated risk management planning and the compelling evidence to shift resources to better match the needs of Tayside as a whole, it is difficult to see that in its decisions over Balmossie the board has met its ‘Best Value’ responsibilities in its use of public resources.”

Commission chairman John Baillie said that the board needs to do more to scrutinise and challenge the service’s performance and help shape its strategy and use of resources.

Current board convener, Perth councillor Bob Band said that was a historic reference to Balmossie and things have moved on. He added, however, that there was little doubt that the matter would be looked at again.