South Yorkshire 2018/19
How efficient is the fire and rescue service at keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks?
An efficient fire and rescue service will manage its budget and spend money properly and appropriately. It will align its resources to its risk. It should try to keep costs down without compromising public safety. Future budgets should be based on robust and realistic assumptions. South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency is good.
The service is good at making the best use of its resources and has a track record of introducing efficient ways of working. But it needs to improve how it makes itself affordable in the future and has to agree a plan that meets both the anticipated budget shortfalls and public expectations.
The service’s medium-term financial plan is based on prudent assumptions. The service was ambitious in introducing new shift systems that saved money and maintained response standards. This system, however, has since been ruled unlawful and now the service needs to determine how it will meet this funding gap and maintain the best possible response resources for the community.
Staffing needs to be increased at the stations affected by the legal ruling. As a result, it can’t meet all the response expectations in its IRMP although we consider its core prevention, protection and response functions appropriately resourced.
There have been some good improvements to ICT systems to manage working time and productivity. However, the service is still digitising some systems to improve efficiency.
The service collaborates with others but isn’t always aware of all the potential benefits. It already shares estates and departments with South Yorkshire Police. Other opportunities to collaboration will be pursued.
The service has good business continuity plans in place that are tested effectively.
How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?
South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service is good at making best use of resources. But we found the following area in which it needs to improve:
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure it effectively monitors, reviews and evaluates the benefits and outcomes of any collaboration.
How plans support objectives
South Yorkshire FRS has seen its funding from central government reduced by about 34 percent since 2010. It has offset some of this reduction by an increase in council tax. This has cut the overall reduction in revenue budget from approximately £60m in 2010/11 to around £50m in 2018/19. In the year to 31 March 2018, the firefighter cost per head of population was £20.47 compared with the England rate of £22.38.
We found that the service’s budget and resource allocation supports the activity set out in its IRMP and it has a balanced budget for 2019/20.
The service has allocated enough resources to prevention, protection and response activity, which links to its IRMP priorities.
Although there is evidence of workforce planning and resourcing to meet strategic priorities, the forced changes to the new shift system have affected the number of staff available to cover fire engines. The result is that the service can’t consistently provide what it has committed to. The current IRMP commits to five firefighters on every fire engine, yet around one-third of the time there are only four. As a result, the service is consulting on a new IRMP that meets the local risk and the current funding challenges.
The service agreed an efficiency plan in 2016 running to 2020. Efficiencies have been made as a result of that plan. But funding from local and national income streams has changed and the service doesn’t yet have an agreed plan for reducing costs after 2020. Its efficiency plan needs updating. The efficiency plan proposed making greater use of on-call firefighters and increased collaboration with other emergency services. Collaboration is moving forward but there is limited evidence of on-call firefighters being used more effectively.
Productivity and ways of working
The service has sought different crewing arrangements to improve its efficiency. As long ago as 2010, it proposed a new approach at stations with generally low demand, namely, close proximity crewing. This system was implemented at Lowedges and Aston Park fire stations in 2014 and at Edlington and Tankersley fire stations in 2015, with estimated savings of £1.4m per year. The basis of this system is that firefighters provide 96 hours of continuous duty, split between crewing a fire engine and being on call overnight, based at the fire station. The legality of the system was successfully challenged by the Fire Brigades Union with The High Court ruling it unlawful in 2018.
As a result of the High Court ruling, the service needs to find an estimated extra £1.4m per year to mitigate the savings it had anticipated from using close proximity crewing. It is consulting on proposals to make these savings, including reducing crewing levels from five to four firefighters per engine or reducing night-time fire cover.
Over recent years, the service has carried out two service support reviews and has reduced non-operational and managerial staffing costs. The service told us that the reviews led to £1.3m of savings. This work has been balanced against the requirements of core functions for the public and suitable support for operational staff.
The joint community safety collaboration with the police allows for critical services to be provided while reducing staffing costs, increasing resilience and giving better safety outcomes for the public.
The service uses a computer recording database called the Watch Performance System (WPS) to record staff time in various activities. This makes sure time is spent as productively as possible and allows the station manager to audit watch activity.
The WPS was implemented in 2010 and monitors:
- monthly tasks against targets (site-specific risk visits and home safety visits);
- watch references (monthly station condition checks);
- watch logs (daily shift checks/vehicle checks);
- CCTV and MDT checks; and
- station audits.
The service is willing and able to collaborate with others, but collaborative arrangements that bring tangible efficiency benefits are at an early stage.
In the last year, the service has developed a joint community safety function with SYP which includes jointly-funded posts. Some non-financial benefits such as a safer community and reduced demand on the emergency services are anticipated.
Other collaborative work with police includes a shared station at Maltby, a joint estates and facilities management team and joint vehicle fleet management.
The service is looking for other collaboration opportunities with local fire services. The service is involved in a joint uniform procurement project, but at the time of the inspection there were no wider plans for other regional collaborations.
While the service monitors, reviews and evaluates the benefits and outcomes of some of its collaboration activities, this is limited. More work is needed, not least to learn from what it has done.
This limited evaluation means that the service doesn’t clearly understand what outcomes and savings need to be factored into future financial planning.
We recognise that there are other non-cash benefits associated with the service’s collaborative activity, which are referenced in other sections of this report.
The service has good business continuity plans in place for all its functions and buildings. The plans are produced in line with best practice guidance and are tested regularly. The service holds no-notice business continuity exercises for critical functions and stations.
Each station and department has its own business continuity plans that are reviewed annually. The testing regime is well documented, and any problems are highlighted on subsequent action plans.
Fire control has effective procedures and regularly tests its own continuity arrangements with West Yorkshire FRS.
How well is the FRS securing an affordable way of managing the risk of fire and other risks now and in the future?
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure it has sufficiently robust plans in place which consider the medium-term financial challenges beyond 2020 so it can prepare to secure the right level of savings.
- The service should assure itself it fully exploits external funding opportunities and options for generating income.
Improving value for money
The service’s medium-term financial plan anticipates a budget deficit of £4.3m by the end of 2022, which it recognises isn’t sustainable. This deficit is primarily the result of changing the close proximity crewing arrangements and unanticipated pension liabilities. At the time of our inspection, the service didn’t have an agreed plan for balancing its budget.
The service’s new IRMP, being consulted on during our inspection, proposes reducing fire engine crew numbers from five to four. The service anticipates this will save more than £1.4m by 2022/23. This proposal isn’t supported by local representative bodies. It is also consulting on reducing staffing cover at some wholetime stations to day staffing and night-time on-call.
The service is at an early stage in developing a more consistent approach to benefits evaluation and realisation. But it doesn’t always understand the benefits expected from its change projects. For example, a joint fleet management strategy with South Yorkshire Police is in place. Despite this innovative arrangement, the potential benefits and savings for the fire service have yet to be determined. This is to be reviewed later in 2019 along with a review of fleet use and numbers.
In the meantime, the service plans to spend over £3m of capital funding between 2019 and 2021, acquiring replacement fire engines and other operational vehicles. It has kept the current fire engines for longer than usual and must now replace current engines and community safety vehicles at or near the end of their operational life.
The service has a joint estates manager with South Yorkshire Police. The service has an up-to-date estates strategy which refers to participating in the One Public Estate programme, exploring opportunities to share premises and collaborate. We look forward to seeing how this contributes to improving the efficiency of the service.
There have been some savings in non-staff costs, for example reducing tender costs and getting better value from suppliers has saved £360,000 over the past two years.
A small underspend was achieved in 2018/19, although the service overspent on its premises, supplies, and services and transport budgets. This was offset by savings arising from staff vacancies. While some savings are planned for 2019/20, they are limited in scope.
The service is alert to future financial risks, including the uncertainties in future funding arrangements. Its medium-term financial plan prudently assumes a 1.99 percent increase in council tax in future years and 2 percent for pay inflation, and hasn’t assumed a government pension grant will continue. The service is aware of risks from proposed changes in funding mechanisms, changes in pension related legislation, and the outcomes of future government spending reviews.
Nearly £8m of capital reserves are planned to be spent on the service’s estate between 2019 and 2021, mainly for demolishing and building a new fire station at its Barnsley site. The rest is earmarked for refurbishing fire stations that are no longer used for CPC, and other improvement works that had been placed on hold to save money.
The service will need to be confident that this expenditure is consistent with the priorities of its new IRMP, and should properly realise the benefits from these investments.
There have been some changes in systems to use technology to improve efficiency and value for money. The service has some good ICT systems in place that have been developed by its own ICT team. For example, the accident recording database can send out automated safety alerts, and the systems for recording operational assurance reports are now online. This allows processes to be more efficient and effective, but not all the systems are interconnected. We also saw old fashioned and inefficient systems being used for everyday tasks.
The service has reserves available to ‘invest to save’ but it doesn’t have clear plans about how it could use this money in the future to improve its overall value for money.
Future investment and working with others
The service can’t yet show comprehensively how it will work with others in the future to improve efficiency. It has a joint community safety function with the police but can’t show how it has provided greater efficiency. Plans to work with the police for fleet and stores workshops are an at early stage. These are small-scale initiatives capable of generating efficiency improvements in the future. However, the service is not currently seeking to drive out cash and non-cash benefits.
The service still holds large general and earmarked reserves. As at 31 March 2019, its general reserves were £22.9m; this is over one-third of its annual budget for 2019/20.
The service has a reserves strategy and a plan for how it will be used. However, we did note that the reduction in earmarked reserves for capital investment in 2019/20 planned in the medium-term financial plan was £1m greater than the amount of the 2019/20 capital programme. This indicates that the timescales for using reserves aren’t realistic and don’t match the planned spending programme. Plans to use reserves are based largely on estates and transport capital spending, with only small amounts identified for innovation and to promote new ways of working. At the time of inspection, the service was relying on using reserves to meet its funding gaps in the absence of an agreed funding plan.
The service has in the past pursued opportunities to generate extra income. Unfortunately, to date it has not considered them to be successful or sustainable. We would encourage the service to continue considering exploring opportunities to generate extra income. For example, applying for grants, working together with local businesses, charging other emergency services to use its estates, etc.