Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Geography supplants partisanship as fire board politics hot up

While there's normally little evidence of any real debate or dissent on issues relating to the Tayside Police Joint Board - indeed, from a layman's perspective it's difficult to discern much in the way of a rationale for the body - it's a different story as regards the councillors elected to the Fire & Rescue equivalent, with crude politicking and electoral considerations surrounding the actions and opinions of both many of the board members and other politicians.

However, Dundee MSP Shona Robison sets the scene in a letter published in the Dundee press, but to what extent are the political class living up to the fine words expressed?: "It would be wrong for Fire Board members to vote along party political or geographical lines."

The context is a controversial proposal by fire chiefs to downgrade cover at Balmossie Station in the east end of Dundee, with resources redeployed to the Angus town of Forfar, primarily because the workload of the former full-time station is significantly higher than the latter, which is staffed by part-time/retained firefighters. Thus it is thought that an enhanced service at the Forfar facility would optimise safety across the area as a whole, albeit that those served by Balmossie would see some diminution in cover.

Thus surely the arena for the kind of geographical and political tussle that Ms Robison thinks should be avoided. However, later in her letter the Scottish Government health minister shows the way forward by ignoring Tayside generally in favour of the city of Dundee:
Therefore, I cannot support the proposals (to downgrade full-time night cover) as they stand and I would urge the Chief Fire Officer, the Fire Board and the FBU to seriously investigate alternative options which can command broad support and deliver enhanced safety for the people of [Dundee].
Thus no geographical considerations evident there then! Not that Ms Robison or the SNP generally should be singled out for criticism. The Evening Telegraph usefully carried a two-page spread on the issue recently, and the views of several politicians were outlined. For Labour, Councillor Laurie Bidwell said, "maintaining the status quo is vital for the safety of those he serves." Perhaps not surprising that the good councillor's ward is covered by Balmossie.

Katrina Murray, Labour PPC for Dundee East at Westminster said: "These proposed cuts will affect the day to day safety of not just the people served by this fire station but all of the folk in Dundee."

As for the the other half of the SNP duo who represent the east end of Dundee in our parliaments, MP Stewart Hosie said his constituents had raised real fears.

Slightly more recently, in the wake of a Dundee City Council committee meeting this week which voted unanimously against the proposal, Councillor Bidwell said: "Just as I predicted, it is inconceivable any city councillor should support a reduction in this vital emergency service."

Absolutely no evidence of political or geographical motivation then! Oh well, I suppose they're at least being honest and up front about where their priorities lie, even if it's delivered in the usual slightly self-righteous, safetyisparamout-esque manner.

Of course, no doubt the key to resolving the paradox between Ms Robison's fine words quoted at the outset and the equally fine words uttered by the other politicians is that none of the above mentioned are actually members of the fire board, and can thus ignore the non-political, non-geographical imperatives.

So we can rely on Conservative and fire board member Councillor Rod Wallace? It seems not. He says: "I stay within half a mile of Balmossie fire station and it is a very important part of my life. I, along with the people of my ward, feel reassured by the service it offers."

What was that about geography? Location, location, location, as Shona Robison nearly said. And Mr Wallace also takes to task, "the convenor of the board [who supports the proposal] in his leafy suburb of Aberfeldy."

And here was me thinking that the area served by Balmossie was the leafy suburb of Dundee! Aberfeldy must be very leafy indeed, although it should be said that the convenor's own town would not in any way be affected by the proposal, a consideration which clearly has both pros and cons from the decision making perspective.

However, there's a further nuance to the political aspect of the fire board: members shouldn't vote along party lines according to the Robison doctrine, but does this mean that they shouldn't necessarily follow the wishes of their constituents? Who knows, but Councillor Wallace adds: "I am a councillor who is also on the fire board, so I have that additional responsibility. But the views of my electorate come first."

Which is clear enough, but raises at least one point. Since not all councillors are members of the board (which comprises representatives from Angus, Dundee and Perth & Kinross councils) then in a self-evident geographical tussle such as this then in theory some residents may not be represented on the board at all, thus in effect it's gerrymandered. And with the support or otherwise of so many councillors crudely dependent on whatever happens to benefit their ward, town or city, any notion of a cross-Tayside perspective from fire board members is clearly lacking.

However, there is some evidence that board members are prepared to set party loyalties aside to look at the approach more objectively. Convenor Ken Lyall favours the shift in emphasis from Balmossie to Forfar and in doing so sets himself against his SNP colleagues in Dundee. Indeed, Councillor Lyall took Dundee SNP administration leader Ken Guild to task over his support for Balmossie, comparing Mr Guild's stance to his cost-cutting measures on the council, and more recently accusing the city's councillors of "political point-scoring" following this week's council vote.

On the other hand, Mr Lyall's claim that the Fire Brigades Union, which opposes the proposal, is using "emotional scaremongering tactics" and that the union's focus is on "protecting its members rather than the communities they serve", was perhaps ill-judged, but as a former police officer and ambulance crew member the councillor is perhaps better placed than most to evaluate these matters.

Meanwhile, in Forfar itself three out of four of the town's councillors support the enhanced cover that the change would bring (no surprise there then, except insofar as support was previously merely lukewarm) but with an interesting difference in opinion between SNP husband and wife team Bill (for) and Glennis Middleton (against).

Perhaps most commendable, however, is Tory councillor John Whyte, who is one of the board vice convenors, and who says, despite representing a ward covered by the threatened Balmossie station: "I also have a responsibility to look at the overall picture as one of the vice convenors for Tayside region." The SNP's Christina Roberts, also a vice convenor, is conveying essentially the same message.

Thus despite the generally non-conflictual and apolitical nature of these bodies, it's clear that in this case party politics, crude politicking and the survival instincts of individual politicians are very much to the fore, not to mention the understandable concerns of firefighters and residents as regards their own self-interest. Indeed, the Courier's uncompromising columnist John J Marshall says:
To their shame, a number of local politicians are disgracefully 'stoking the fires'. They posture about protecting lives but the only skins they are trying to save are their own.[...] The fire union, of course, exists to look after the interests of its members and provide them with the best possible deal, like undisturbed nights.

A more responsible approach is expected from those representing the public, such as viewing the bigger picture.
Indeed, when the issue was last discussed and voted on party political feuding reared its ugly head when SNP councillor Sandy West said: "Could it be that, even outside the Angus Council chamber, the sole policy of the Angus Alliance is to automatically vote against anything an SNP Angus councillor puts forward?"

To which Councillor Bob Myles of the Angus (Unionist?) Alliance retorted: I am very disappointed that five years of work developing a comprehensive rationalisation of Tayside Fire Service was thrown out on petty parochial issues, and again we have Angus SNP members trying to make political capital out of a totally non-political issue."

Thus it may all be slightly unedifying, but I suppose in some ways it's better than the nodding dogs on the Tayside police board. However, the problem is that when councillors dissent from the official board line crude party politics doesn't take long to rear its ugly head.

Of course, in situations such as this one it's always a lot easier to defend the status quo than promote change which might objectively be viewed as more equitable in the wider context, with vested interest groups - in this case politicians, firefighters and residents - who would be adversely affected by change more organised and vehement in their opposition than those who would benefit are in their desire and enthusiasm for change.

To that extent Balmossie will win the day rather than Tayside as a whole, but the run up to the vote in a couple of month's time seems likely to generate much heat and perhaps a little light as well, and whichever way things go the embers of the dispute are unlikely to be extinguished for some considerable time.


BellgroveBelle said...

Interesting to see how another Fire Board and its politics works. Strathclyde, due to an in-built Labour majority sees little chance of debate or overturning of a proposal.

The closest vote so far has been a tie on an issue of procurement, which required the cooperation of SNP, Conservatives, and other opposition members. For Labour, there's never any deviation from the line given to them by the Convener and Chief.

Stuart Winton said...

Thanks, BB; I wonder how often board politics become a high-profile issue in their particular area? It's certainly received acres of coverage here recently, although in Scotland as a whole I suspect that's the exception rather than a rule, but of course these things probably rarely get discussed beyond the local media.

BellgroveBelle said...

I think where there's more diversity on the board, things may well end up like Tayside. It depends as well how emotive the issue is.

On Strathclyde, it seems party loyalty remains. Glasgow Labour Councillors voted for the closure of Parkhead Fire Station, and an Ayrshire Labour Councillor voted against favouring a local firm to provide Fire vehicles.

Stuart Winton said...

Interesting, BB; the Tayside split certainly seems to be anything but partisan. In particular, the convenor and one of the vice convenors who are supporting the change are both SNP, while of course the Dundee politicians and councillors opposing the move are primarily SNP.