Monday, 04 July 2022

Campaigners lose fight to save fire station

Campaigners lose fight to save fire station

A CAMPAIGNER says she is disappointed after losing a three-year fight to save Wargrave fire station from closure.

The Royal Berkshire Fire Authority has decided to shut the Victoria Road station to save money and because the retained crew had failed to achieve an availability target of 60 per cent.

The building will remain empty until the authority decides to sell it but it says community groups can request to use it in the meantime.

The closure was first considered by the authority in 2017 but the station was given a reprieve three times.

In 2018, Wargrave resident Chez Annetts gathered 240 signatures on a petition asking for the station to be saved. 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 said: “It is very disappointing but I am not surprised by the decision. I understand why it is sensible to lose Wargrave financially but I remain concerned for the safety of Wargrave and the surrounding villages.

“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.”

She said residents had become apathetic about trying to save the station.

Ms Annetts said: “It had been dragging on for the last few years. Nobody was willing to do anything about it anymore. I had resigned myself that closure 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 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.”

The station, which opened in 1903 and was the oldest and smallest station in Berkshire, was recommended for closure in April 2017 but the decision was delayed by 12 months in order to give the crew time to improve their availability and then delayed again by nine months in October 2018.

It was put on hold yet 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 it has consistently failed to do partly due to the loss of experienced staff. In May the figure was only 2.8 per cent.

At a meeting on Thursday last week, members of the authority were recommended to approve the closure in order to help overcome a budget shortfall of £284,000. For the station to have stayed open, the authority would have had to dip into its reserves.

The members agreed by 11 votes to seven with two abstentions.

Councillor Pauline Helliar-Symons, vice-chairwoman of the 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 availability 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.”

Wargrave councillor Graham Howe, who abstained, 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.

“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 the crew 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 said: “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.”

Chairman Colin Dudley said that 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.

“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 appliances from the other fire stations would still be the first to arrive. This is due to the fact that they are crewed 24/7 and immediately available to go out.

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

Members were asked to discuss the possibility of converting the 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 in this from Thames Valley Police or South Central Ambulance Service.

Members of the part-time Wargave crew will now be offered the chance to join the Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service permanently.

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