Ministers have confirmed that London’s fire authority is to be abolished and responsibility for providing fire services passed to the mayor.
The London Fire Brigade is currently overseen by the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) which is made up of local councillors, London Assembly members and representatives of the mayor.“This important change will help streamline the decision making processes and provide a more efficient and effective fire service.”
Although the mayor sets LFEPA’s budget and appoints its members, the body operates as a legally separate authority in its own right and takes decisions through majority votes, as in a local council.
With membership determined by the parties’ respective performance in local elections it’s possible for a majority of LFEPA members to come from different parties than the mayor, pitching the body against the mayor’s policy and budgetary objectives.
In order to avoid deadlock between LFEPA and City Hall the last Labour government gave the mayor the power to overrule and ‘direct’ the authority to follow his instructions.
That power remained unused until 2013 when Boris Johnson used it to order a consultation on plans to close fire stations and axe fire engines in the wake of cuts in both City Hall and UK Government grants.
Mr Johnson has since used the power to force authority members to sell former fire stations below market price and to consider plans to withhold a full shift’s pay from firefighters who strike for just part of a shift in order to reduce the cost of providing emergency fire cover during industrial action.
Each of these interventions prompted complaints from authority members that the mayor was usurping their role while he argued that he was ultimately responsible for ensuring the brigade’s finances were balanced while the frontline service was protected from spending cuts.
Relations between LFEPA members and City Hall deteriorated after the mayor asked ministers to increase the number of appointments he could make to the authority, with members accusing him of a “power grab”.
Last year ministers went further and brought forward proposals to abolish LFEPA entirely and today confirmed that legislation would be brought forward to pass day to day control of the brigade to the London Fire Commissioner who will in future answer to the Mayor or a deputy mayor for fire who will set the brigade’s budgets and strategic direction.
A new Fire and Emergency Planning Committee will be formed by the London Assembly which will become responsible for scrutinising the commissioner, brigade and mayor.
These arrangements mirror the 2012 changes to police governance when the Metropolitan Police Authority was replaced with the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) and a new Assembly Police and Crime committee established to hold the Met and MOPAC to account.
Commenting on today’s announcement, a spokesperson for Mayor Johnson said: “The Mayor has long argued for greater democratic accountability and welcomes the Government’s plans to abolish the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority and place oversight of fire services directly with the Mayoralty.
“While both the police and fire services in the capital already form part of the Mayor’s Greater London Authority Group, this important change will help streamline the decision making processes and provide a more efficient and effective fire service. There will also be further opportunities to share functions with the police service.”
Sadiq Khan, Labour’s candidate to succeed Mr Johnson, commented: “I welcome the Mayor taking over direct responsibility for the city’s fire services – but what we also need is a Mayor who is not cutting the number of fire engines on London’s streets.
“Londoners’ safety has been put at risk by Tory cuts to fire engines, and enough is enough.”
Labour’s London Assembly Fire Spokesperson, Fiona Twycross AM, said: “LFEPA has continually been undermined by Boris Johnson’s interference in the day to day matters of the Brigade’s work. In a time when London’s emergency services face unprecedented challenges any move to make our fire service more transparent and open to public scrutiny is welcome.
“A transparent service, underpinned by strong accountability and oversight, is essential for ensuring that we can protect frontline services and the safety of Londoners. But ultimately, whether or not this offer delivers for Londoners will also depend on whether the Mayor is willing to make the safety of people in our capital a priority.”