London’s fire authority is to be abolished and control of the fire brigade handed over to City Hall under proposals unveiled by Ministers on Friday.
Currently a mixture of 17 local councillors, London Assembly members and representatives of the Mayor sit on the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA).
Although the Mayor appoints sets the authority’s budget and appoints its members, the law requires that membership reflects the capital’s political composition and the body operates a legally separate authority in its own right.
However the mayor does have the power to overrule and ‘direct’ the authority to follow his instructions, a power granted in 2008 but unused until Boris Johnson used it in 2013 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.
Since then the mayor has used the power to force authority members to sell former 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 the interventions prompted complaints from authority members that Mr Johnson was usurping their role while the mayor argued that he was ultimately responsible for ensuring that 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”.
The row also caused members to break into pro and anti-Boris factions, with some Labour members describing themselves as “opposition” members despite being part of the authority’s executive and sharing full legal responsibility for its decisions.
Ministers have now gone further than the mayor’s request and announced plans to implement a recommendation of Parliament’s local government select committee to abolish LFEPA entirely and pass control of the fire brigade to the mayor.
They say such a reform would “strengthen democratic accountability by removing the current confusion whereby the Mayor is accountable for setting the annual budget for fire, but is in a minority position on London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority in respect of decisions relating to fire provision.”
It’s also previously been suggested that the change would allow savings to be made in back office and procurement costs by sharing services with the Metropolitan police which is already overseen by the mayor.
However critics, including the Fire Brigades Union, say the move would be “undemocratic” and reduce political consensus in decisions affecting the brigade.
A consultation on the plans runs until 23 October 2015 and can be accessed online.