Sunday, 21 April 2019

Village fire station set to avoid closure until August

WARGRAVE fire station is set to avoid closure for at least another nine months.

The Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Authority’s management committee has agreed to recommend that the year the station was given to improve its crewing levels is extended until August.

But campaigners against closure say they are still worried that the final decision may come down to money.

The retained station in Victoria Road was spared closure last year pending the 12-month trial, which ended this month.

The authority will make a final decision on November 19 and is being recommended to at least postpone closure following the committee’s meeting on Monday.

The station, which is the oldest in Berkshire, was told it must increase the availability of its crew from around six per cent to 60 per cent or be closed. In recent years, the availability has been as little as 2.4 per cent.

Since the trial begain it has managed to reach 38 per cent availability and campaigners say the target could be reached by early next year when its new recruits have been trained.

However, they fear the authority could still decide to close the station as it still has to find savings of £200,000 somewhere else if it remains open. Last year, the authority held a public consultation on plans to cut costs.

Residents across the county were asked to state their preference from seven possible measures designed to save £1.4 million. The most popular proposal was to close Wargrave and Pangbourne fire stations.

However, following a campaign by Wargrave residents and parish councillors,  the authority agreed to the trial.

Hundreds of Wokingham borough residents responded to the consultation, while a 240-strong petition calling for the Wargrave station to stay open was submitted to the authority.

There were also representations from Wargrave Parish Council and seven staff at the station who wrote a letter outlining its importance to the community.

The petition was started by villager Chez Annetts, whose father Tony was a watch manager at Wargrave station.

She welcomed the decision made on Monday but said the money was still a major issue. Ms Annetts said: “It could mean that in nine months’ time, even if Wargrave is the best-performing retained station in Berkshire, they could still close it if they cannot find the money for its operating costs.

“The most practical solution is to consider paying for the fire station ourselves.

“I have spoken with local parish and borough councillors and it is possible for a part of our council tax to be solely allocated to the fire station.

“We can’t hide the fact that we have lost many local services due to government budget cutbacks or other services being prioritised.

“We can do something about this one. We might not have to but I think a back-up plan wouldn't hurt.”

Ms Annetts has started a survey to establish whether residents would be willing to pay to keep the station open and will present the results at the authority’s meeting on November 19.

She said: “My concern remains it will become a purely financial issue as £200,000 still needs to be found in the budget.

“The report admits the authority holds reserves amounting to this figure and they have been looking into other options. The authority is being presented with three options: keep Wargrave open, close Wargrave, or defer the decision again for a period of time to be decided.

“All told, I think it really is a 50/50 outcome but my experience with these organisations says it always comes down to money.”

The station, which opened in 1903, currently has 15 firefighters and three in training but has historically had problems recruiting and nearly had to close in 2014 after two-thirds of the crew left in two years.

A spokeswoman for the authority said: “Following the conclusion of the 12-month period, the authority’s management committee reviewed the progress made and noted that the required criteria had not been met during the 12 months.  

“However, the committee acknowledged the increase in retained firefighters at Wargrave through proactive recruitment and wanted to ensure time is allowed for the additional personnel to complete required training, which should improve availability.

“The committee agreed to recommend to the authority that the implementation of the decision to close Wargrave fire station be deferred for a further nine-month period.”

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