Sunday, 17 January 2021

Campaign to save village fire station begins again

CAMPAIGNERS and councillors have vowed to try to save Wargrave fire station after it was given a final chance to avoid closure.

The Victoria Road station was expected to be shut by the Royal Berkshire Fire Authority after failing to meet a 60 per cent target for the availability of the crew.

But last week members of the authority’s management committee said it would not be appropriate to make a decision due to the general election and the potential for investment in the public sector by the new government.

The station was given until June 2020 to turn things around and the fire service agreed to pursue a study into the benefit of a community safety hub in Wargrave, which would have fire, police and first responders under one roof.

John Halsall, a parish councillor and the leader of Wokingham Borough Council, said: “I am absolutely delighted.

“I have tried to keep the fire station open throughout my tenure as a borough councillor and I think the fire service has been very fair to postpone this decision.

“We were doing very well until a couple of senior officers retired and unfortunately they had all the skills that are needed to get the fire engine out.

“A community safety hub needs to be driven by the community. The parish council needs to be 100 per cent behind it and if it does that, then we have a chance of success.

“We [the borough council] have various ways of helping the fire service and we are working on the funding.”

Fellow parish and borough councillor Graham Howe said: “I am pleased because it shows the fire authority is willing and it gives the station the possibility of meeting the targets which have been set out.

“The fire service will still have to make up its mind and the parish council needs to take a lead role on the discussion of the community safety hub.

“We have pleaded with the fire authority not to close the station and we have also been lobbying the parish council to motivate them to get involved.

“We need to understand the funding a bit better and what is required. The funding will take some months to sort out but this gives us a bit of breathing space. The loss of senior staff has affected the response time and we have got to do something about that.”

Campaigner Chez Annetts lobbied the borough council and the fire service to keep the station open when it was first earmarked for possible closure more than two years ago.

Her father Tony was a firefighter for 43 years and was in charge of the station for 36 years before he retired in 2012.

Last year, she carried out a survey of residents and more than half of the respondents said they would be willing to pay an extra £75 a year in council tax if it meant having a fire station in Wargrave.

Ms Annetts said: “My entire life has revolved around that fire station. When we first heard it was in danger, we did what we needed to do.

“The targets they set were ridiculous. No retained station in history has ever consistently achieved 60 per cent availability. Every time they have put a hurdle in our way we have tried to fight it.”

She said she was “astonished” by the U-turn but was anxious to ensure the parish council was not pursuing a community safety hub in favour of a standalone fire station. Ms Annetts added: “I want to make sure they [the firefighters] are getting the chance to go on the courses they need to get up to the required standard.

“It is refreshing to hear from people who can see benefits of keeping the station open. There is a huge community aspect to it that would be lost forever if it closed.”

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

The closure was deferred for 12 months as a result of the community campaign and to see if the crew’s 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 temporarily 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.

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