West Sussex County Council and East Sussex Fire Authority have today (Thursday February 2) jointly announced that they will not be proceeding with a full merger of the two Fire & Rescue Services in April 2013.
Merger remains the desired way forward if government funding and financial issues can be resolved.
The two authorities have also pledged to continue working more closely together to deliver savings and efficiencies, whilst seeking to build a more resilient service across Sussex and Brighton & Hove. Both authorities have also made clear that their work on creating a new joint control room is still going ahead, with the desired location being along the A23 corridor or at a mutually convenient location.
The two authorities had originally announced plans to examine future options for closer collaboration, up to and including a full merger, back in December 2010.
After the initial business case concluded that merger was the best option to protect community fire & rescue services from the expected impacts of government grant reductions and improve operational resilience, a twelve-week public consultation then took place between July 14 and October 6 last year.
While the proposed merger was strongly supported by those who took part in the consultation, today's decision not to proceed with a merger in 2013 is because of new government proposals to change the system of grant funding for all local authorities and the uncertainties this would cause on the financial planning for a newly merged Fire Authority for Sussex.
Councillor John Livings, Chairman of East Sussex Fire Authority, said:
"Regrettably, and due to circumstances beyond our control, both East Sussex Fire Authority (ESFA) and West Sussex County Council (WSCC) have agreed it is not possible at this time to proceed to merger in 2013.
"The government first announced its Local Government Resource Review (LGRR) in March 2011, several months after we had begun our work on looking at whether merger was possible. After completing its review the government now proposes to link all local authority funding to the amount of business rates raised locally, and it intends to bring a new Local Government Finance Bill before Parliament later in 2012.
"The proposals include the funding of all fire and rescue authorities, regardless of whether they are a combined fire authority or part of a county council and, with unfortunate timing, the funding changes are planned to take effect on 1st April 2013 - exactly the same day as our proposed merger."
Councillor Livings added:
"Numerous people from across both Services have worked extremely hard and done their very best over the last year or so to try and enable a merger of the Services in April 2013. Whilst East Sussex Fire Authority believe a merged service would be the right thing to do, this has to be subject to having the necessary financial information available to enable the business case to be completed so that we can ensure any merger does not cause any unnecessary increase in costs to local taxpayers, and does not result in a less resilient operational and community safety service.
"Meanwhile, Councillor Bradbury and I, on behalf of both Services, confirm our unequivocal commitment to protect our local communities at a price local council tax payers can afford to pay, within the limits of our available resources."
Councillor Pete Bradbury, West Sussex County Council's Cabinet Member for Public Protection, said:
"Since the Local Government Resources Review (LGRR) was announced both Services have been seeking confirmation from the DCLG on what this would mean for redistribution of grants for a merged Service, what potential risks this might create for our local funding and, ultimately, whether council tax for the merged Service could still be equalised across the whole of the area.
"The DCLG have now told us it is not possible to provide that level of detail at the current time due to the ongoing work of the LGRR and the Finance Bill. The Department did agree, however, to look to see whether and when it would be possible for them to give the necessary assurances in the future.
"It is frustrating that the timing of the government's Resource Review creates this problem, but both West Sussex County Council and East Sussex Fire Authority understand and accept the DCLG's position, and have now agreed it is not possible to merge in 2013."
Councillor Bradbury added:
"The findings of the business case and public support, coupled with the knowledge that finances are likely to get even tighter, shows how closer collaboration and joint working between the two Services is both necessary and desirable. This work will continue.
"We have already started on this work, not least with the decision last December to create a single joint Mobilising & Communications Centre for both Services.
"Until the position on a full merger becomes clear, we will consider all other ways to achieve the financial and operational benefits of collaboration short of a merger, whilst minimising the impact on services to the public."