Saturday, 31 October 2020

Wargrave Fire Station recommended for closure

WARGRAVE Fire Station has been recommended for closure following a long-running campaign by villagers to save it.

The oldest and smallest station in Berkshire, which opened in 1903, was given a nine-month extension last November to improve response times and find the required savings of £168,000.

Royal Berkshire Fire Authority is due to meet on Tuesday (December 3) and the recommendation before the management committee is to implement the planned closure.

Those affected will meet with the fire authority to discuss alternative employment opportunities, with an official closing date yet to be confirmed.

Parish councillor John Halsall, who is also the chairman of Wokingham Borough Council, said he intended to fight the recommendation and urged the fire service to “exhaust all avenues” before closing the station.

He said: “We have four councillors on Wokingham Borough Council who are part of the fire authority and we successfully fought this last time.

“All is not lost. We have been faced with the retirement of two senior people at the fire station and that was a big blow.

“I don’t agree with the report. We will be opposing the closure. I am surprised that the meeting is happening in the first place because we are in purdah.

“The exploration of a blue light hub in Wargrave has not yet taken place and the fire service should not make any decision until that exploration has been completed.

“The decision would mean that the northern parishes of Wokingham Borough will be a dark patch in the service and it is inevitable that Henley will have to serve Wargrave, but that conversation with Oxfordshire has not taken place either.

“We have done a really good job in terms of recruitment. I would like my colleagues in the fire service to exhaust all avenues before taking a final decision.”

Even with the loss of this station, the fire authority will still need to make savings of £488,000 in the budget. More than £640,000 would have to be found to keep the station open.

In April 2017, members unanimously agreed to close Wargrave Fire Station, but deferred the implementation of the closure for twelve months.

This was then extended, but the viability of the station has been hampered by the loss of several experienced firefighters.

Response times had to improve from as low as 3.2 per cent to 60 per cent, but the station has struggled to recruit new staff and had to close in 2014 after losing two-thirds of the crew.

The authority held a public consultation in 2017 on cost-saving measures and closing Wargrave and Pangbourne’s stations were among the most popular options.

However, a campaign by villagers and Wargrave Parish Council resulted in the closure being delayed.

The fire station is home to retained firefighters, which means they are on-call and must live within a certain distance of the station to be able to respond to incidents.

The fire authority said there was a “marked improvement” in availability from January to April this year, but this was short lived due to three resignations in quick succession.

Of these, two individuals were qualified drivers and level one commanders and this had a negative impact on availability figures thereafter.

Responses improved to 46.4 per cent in January, but slumped back down to as low as 18.8 per cent in May.

The report to the committee reads: “It will take time, willingness and commitment on the part of those staff at the station to undertake driving or level one command courses and responsibilities as part of their role. 

“Sixty per cent availability is challenging for any RDS [retained] station, but arguably poses a greater challenge for Wargrave, based on the size and demographic of the eligible population.

“Despite our best efforts in relation to recruitment, retention and training, the availability at Wargrave over the past three years has fallen short of the target.

“Obviously, our staff are extremely important to us. Therefore, affected staff will now be invited to attend individual meetings to discuss this matter and examine any potential opportunities for suitable alternative employment, as a means to avoid redundancy.

“Given the evidence contained within the authority’s risk model, continued financial support for Wargrave beyond April 2020 may not be the most efficient use of public funds.”

Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service  have been approached for comment

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