Saturday, 31 October 2020

Village fire station set to close despite campaign

WARGRAVE fire station is set to be closed despite a campaign by residents to save it.

A meeting of the Royal Berkshire Fire Authority’s management committee on Tuesday is being recommended to shut the station from the end of March because the crew is not available enough.

The Victoria Road station, which opened in 1903 and the oldest in Berkshire, has been under threat since April 2017, when the authority decided to close it to save costs.

The closure was deferred for 12 months as a result of the campaign and to see if availability could be brought up to 60 per cent. This was then extended for nine months in November last year.

The station, which is manned by retained firefighters, has a history of struggling to recruit and at one stage the crew’s availability was as low as 3.2 per cent.

In 2014, it had to close after losing two-thirds of the firefighters. 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 firefighters were qualified drivers and level one commanders.

A report to the committee says: “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 [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.”

The other difficulty for the station was that if it stayed open, the authority would have to find savings of £168,000 in its budget.

Wargrave parish councillor John Halsall, who is also the chairman of Wokingham Borough Council, urged the fire service to “exhaust all avenues” before closing the station.

He said: “I don’t agree with the report. 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 would be a dark patch in the service and it is inevitable that Henley would have to serve Wargrave but that conversation with Oxfordshire has not taken place.”

He said that all was not lost, adding: “We have four councillors on the borough council who are part of the fire authority and we successfully fought this last time. We will be opposing the closure.

“We have been faced with the retirement of two senior people at the fire station and that was a big blow. We have done a really good job in terms of recruitment.”

Retained firefighters are on call and must live within a certain distance of the station to be able to respond to incidents.

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