Monday, 04 July 2022

Campaigners lose fight to stop fire station closure

WARGRAVE Fire Station has closed after a three-year battle to try and save it.

It was the oldest and smallest station in Berkshire and first opened in 1903.

Royal Berkshire Fire Authority first talked about shutting the station in April 2017, but a campaign from Wargrave residents bought the crew extra time.

The decision was first delayed by 12 months and then by nine months in October 2018. It was put on hold again for six months following a meeting in December, when the general election was about to take place.

The crew was asked to achieve an availability target of 60 per cent, something they have consistently failed to do. In May 2020, it dropped to 2.8 per cent.

Members had been recommended to approve the closure in order to help overcome a budget shortfall of £284,000.

For the station to have stayed open, the fire authority would have had to dip into its reserves.

Councillor Pauline Helliar-Symons, vice-chair of the fire authority, said: “I can’t see that there is any alternative. To keep Wargrave open we would have to dig into our reserves to the tune of £225,000.

“Wargrave’s fires are already put out in good time by other stations – and not the Wargrave engine – because it is just not available.

“The numbers are self-evident. Last year, they achieved only 18.3 per cent and this year it was 2.8 per cent in May. Sadly, we can’t afford to keep a fire engine just standing in a building which can’t be used.”

The Victoria Road station is run by on-call – otherwise known as retained – firefighters.

Existing members of staff will be given the opportunity to join on a permanent basis.

The recommendation was approved during a virtual meeting of the fire authority on June 25.

There were 11 votes in favour, seven against and two abstentions, one of which was Wargrave councillor Graham Howe.

He told the Henley Standard: “There are two sides to the argument. There is the emotional side with it being the oldest station in Berkshire, but there is also the financial side of it.

“I went on the fire board last summer and I managed to get a stay of execution in December.

“My position, at the end of the day, was split because there are residents who have campaigned to keep the station open and there are others who think it is unviable and are asking what they are spending their money on.”

Some members argued that Wargrave had not had enough chance to prove itself in the last six months due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Councillor Paul Gittings said: “The root cause for the decision is the underfunding of our services by the Government. The austerity programme has had a fundamental impact on the services we supply to the public.

“The target of 60 per cent that we set Wargrave in 2017 was a condition of it staying open. In retrospect it was almost an unachievable target.

“There were a few months when the direction of travel was looking good and reached nearer 50 per cent, but we might in retrospect say they were set up to fail, although I don’t believe that was the intention.

“There has been no problem with recruitment at Wargrave. We must ask ourselves why retention has been poor and I don’t blame firefighters looking for positions elsewhere with the prospect of closure hanging over them for the past three years.

“It just doesn’t feel right, in the middle of a global pandemic, to close Berkshire’s oldest fire station, however valid the reasons might be.”

Councillor Jo Lovelock added: “I am extremely uncomfortable making this decision now. We gave them six months back in December thinking we were going to have normal times.

“We are in very strange times and it may be that when we come out of the pandemic and people are able to go back to work that there will be a number of local people that haven’t got that luxury.

“I just feel we should give that community another chance to work in more normal times.”

However, chairman Colin Dudley said the other on-call stations had managed to improve their response times in the same period and the impact of closing Wargrave would be minimal.

He added: “I want to reassure people living in Wargrave that they will continue to receive the high-quality service they have become used to.

“The fact of the matter is that just last month their availability was just 2.8 per cent. If you average that out across 24 hours that is just 50 minutes. We cannot afford to keep a very expensive appliance that is only available for an average of 50 minutes.

“For many years now, almost all incidents in Wargrave have been attended by crews from our whole-time stations at Wokingham Road and Maidenhead. Of the 42 incidents that have occurred in and around Wargrave [in the last year] the Wargrave fire engine responded to one. 

“Even when the Wargrave appliance was available, it was very likely that the whole-time appliances from the other fire stations could still be the first to arrive. This is due to the fact that whole time stations are crewed 24/7 and immediately available to go out on blue lights.

“We cannot continue to extend what I believe is the inevitable.”

Councillor Dexter Smith, lead member for integrated risk management, added: “Funding in the public sector is uncertain because of the demands of the pandemic.

“I think if we defer this decision again, we will do so at the risk of us being able to achieve satisfactory outcomes of our core business and I think that is a higher risk for us to agree to.

“The targets that were set were very clear and the performance of the station never got anywhere near those targets.”

Members were also asked to discuss the possibility of converting the old fire station into a community safety hub, which would house the different blue lights services under one roof.

However, a feasibility study found that there was no interest from Thames Valley Police or South Central Ambulance Service in pursuing this option.

This means the fire station building will remain empty until the authority decides to sell it. Councillor Dudley said community groups would be welcome to occupy it, but suggested there was little appetite after discussions with Wargrave Parish Council.

Councillor Howe added: “The police have closed the station in Twyford and we had high hopes that they would be pleased to have a desk in Wargrave, but they chose not to.

“The campaign doesn’t stop now. I don’t think they emphasised well enough during the meeting that Wokingham Borough is in the bottom third in terms of funding from the Government across the country, but it is in the top fifth of performers.”

Keeping firefighters has also been a significant challenge for Wargrave. Since April 2017, there have been five “have-a-go” days to try to raise interest in coming to work as part of the on-call team.

Eight new starters have been recruited since then, but seven people have also left and some of these were firefighters with many years of experience.

In 2018, Wargrave resident Chez Annetts gathered 240 signatures on a petition that was sent to Wokingham Borough Council, asking for the station to be saved.

She said: “It is very disappointing, but I am not surprised. I remain concerned for the safety of Wargrave and the surrounding villages.

“I understand why it is sensible to lose Wargrave financially. The irony of all this is that it is all well and good for residents to say there is no point paying council tax towards it, but we don’t pay for the station, we give money to the fire and rescue service.

“We will still be paying that money whether the station is open or not. I know it is once in a blue moon that we have an incident, but there will be a fatality in the next five years because an appliance didn’t get there.”

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

Ms Annetts added: “There started to be an apathy in the village. Nobody was willing to do anything about it anymore. I know it has been dragging on for the last few years.

“I had resigned myself that it was inevitable without people fighting to save it. There was nobody, including our councillors, who seemed to be that bothered by it anymore.

“It just seems that East Berkshire is being forgotten. People forget all of the other roles that firefighters perform, such as attending a local fireworks display. I can’t see someone from Reading coming to an event in Wargrave.

“We have very few shops and it is just a little community that is slowly dying – this is another nail in the coffin.”


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