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Northamptonshire 2021/22

Efficiency

How efficient is the fire and rescue service at keeping people safe and secure?

Last updated 27/07/2022
Good

Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency is good.

Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service required improvement in its 2018/19 assessment.

We are pleased to find that since our last inspection, the service has made significant progress in improving its efficiency. The change in governance and additional support from central government has allowed it to stabilise and secure its financial position, both now and in the future. It has successfully established an adequate level of reserves and can demonstrate a balanced budget over the duration of its medium-term financial plan (MTFP).

The service has a clear rationale when allocating resources to its prevention, protection and response functions. This is clearly linked to risks identified in its IRMP. The service then uses a strong performance management framework to ensure these resources perform efficiently against objectives in the IRMP.

The governance change has actively introduced new opportunities for collaboration. These have given the service the capacity and capability it needs to modernise the organisation. A joint enabling services function with Northamptonshire Police now provides functions including fleet, estates and information and communications technology (ICT). The service should make sure it comprehensively monitors, reviews and evaluates the benefits of this collaboration.

Notably, we found that the service’s ICT infrastructure is not fit for purpose and is significantly hampering staff productivity. The service has plans in place to address this, but it should make sure this continues to be an important priority.

Questions for Efficiency

1

How well is the FRS making best use of its resources?

Good

Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service is good at making best use of its resources.

Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service required improvement in its 2018/19 assessment.

Fire and rescue services should manage their resources properly and appropriately, aligning them with the services’ risks and statutory responsibilities. Services should make best possible use of resources to achieve the best results for the public.

The service’s budget for 2022/23 is £27.092m. This is a 7.25 percent increase from the previous financial year.

We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.

Allocation of resources is linked directly to the IRMP

We are encouraged to see the improvements the service has made since our last inspection. The service’s financial and workforce plans, including allocating staff to prevention, protection and response, now reflect and are consistent with the risks and priorities identified in the IRMP. For example:

  • the allocation of resources to the response function is clearly linked to the outcomes of the service’s 2019 fire cover review;
  • the increase in prevention resources has been supported by business cases that outline why this is necessary to meet the risks identified in the IRMP; and
  • the provision of protection resources reflects the demand and activity detailed in the IRMP.

We found evidence of the service’s fire control being inadequately resourced. It frequently operates with less than the required number of staff. But the service had recently taken steps to address this with improved succession planning. It should make sure it maintains these improvements.

Plans are built on sound scenarios and use a zero-based budgeting principle to allocate resources based on current need, as opposed to assuming previous spending should continue. These plans help make sure the service is sustainable. And they are underpinned by financial controls that reduce the risk of misusing public money. This is supported by external audits, which identified no areas of concern.

The service monitors performance effectively

We are pleased to see that the service’s arrangements for managing performance clearly link resource use to the IRMP and the service’s strategic priorities. We found that since our last inspection, the service has introduced an effective performance framework, which staff understand well. Teams throughout the organisation use scorecards to report their work against specific targets. Managers at all levels of the service told us the scorecard system helps them make sure their team’s time is as productive as possible and meets the organisation’s objectives.

The service is taking some other steps to make sure the workforce’s time is productive. This includes implementing new ways of working. For example, it has introduced a new crewing model at two fire stations, which is designed to better support on-call availability.

In our 2018 inspection, we identified that the service needed to make sure it had clear and robust processes to manage staff overtime. We are pleased to find it has now introduced effective measures to make sure it only uses overtime when it is needed to meet operational requirements.

Poor ICT infrastructure hampers the productivity of staff

Throughout our inspection, staff told us their productivity was significantly reduced by the available IT systems and hardware. This is particularly the case at the service’s fire stations. Examples include:

  • software applications that haven’t been sufficiently updated, resulting in staff developing time-consuming workarounds that also create single points of failure;
  • a lack of computers fitted with video conferencing software, meaning staff are less able to access training courses; and
  • using paper-based recording systems, which need to be duplicated to communicate information to others in the organisation.

We acknowledge that the service has an ambitious plan to develop the way it provides technology and IT through its joint enabling services function. It should make sure it prioritises this work to improve its teams’ output and productivity.

The service collaborates extensively to improve its efficiency

Since our last inspection, and following the change of governance, the service has entered an extensive collaboration with Northamptonshire Police and the Office of the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner. Named ‘enabling services’, it provides joint back-office functions across five areas. These are:

  • finance;
  • fleet and equipment;
  • ICT;
  • estates; and
  • human resources.

These collaborative teams have been introduced gradually over the last two years and are all supported by detailed business cases and strategies, which outline how they will result in efficiencies and improve the effectiveness of the service.

We found that the service has plans to introduce performance indicators in April 2022 to measure the output of these teams. It should make sure it implements this process so it comprehensively monitors, reviews and evaluates the outcomes of the collaboration.

Collaborative working, particularly with the police, is also evident across prevention, protection and response functions. There are several joint teams, which include staff from both organisations, all aiming to improve outcomes for the public of Northamptonshire.

The service has good business continuity arrangements

We are encouraged to see the improvements the service has made since the last inspection. The service has good continuity arrangements in place for areas where threats and risks are considered high. These threats and risks are regularly reviewed and tested so that staff are aware of the arrangements and their associated responsibilities. For example, it has a clear plan outlining how it would carry out its statutory functions in the event of industrial action. It also has robust procedures should its fire control room become compromised. It regularly reviews and tests these procedures.

The service takes some action to ensure value for money

During our inspection we found some evidence of the service working to improve value for money and reduce non-pay costs. Examples include:

  • promoting better scrutiny by improving the way it governs its procurement process and reducing the thresholds for authorising spend;
  • introducing a new software tool to better monitor vehicle use and fuel consumption; and
  • jointly procuring external data with Northamptonshire Police to inform risk identification and activity in its prevention and protection functions.

The service could do more to demonstrate value for money. For example, we found no evidence that the service uses national and local benchmarking.

Some of the savings and efficiencies made under the service’s former governance arrangements had a disproportionate effect on operational performance. The governance change has increased the funding available to the service, allowing it to improve the level of service it gives the public.

2

How well does the FRS make the fire and rescue service affordable now and in the future?

Good

Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service is good at making the service affordable now and in the future.

Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service required improvement in its 2018/19 assessment.

Fire and rescue services should continuously look for ways to improve their effectiveness and efficiency. This includes transforming how they work and improving their value for money. Services should have robust spending plans that reflect future financial challenges and efficiency opportunities, and they should invest in better services for the public.

Areas for improvement

The service needs to assure itself that it is maximising opportunities to improve workforce productivity and develop future capacity through use of innovation, including the use of technology.

We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.

The service has stabilised its financial position

We are encouraged to see the improvements the service has made since the last inspection. Following its exit from county council governance, the service was in a position of significant financial risk. It has taken extensive steps to address this, including lobbying central government to increase its funding. This has a resulted in a stabilised position on which it has been able to develop secure plans for the future. Its MTFP now results in a balanced budget.

The underpinning assumptions in the MTFP are relatively robust, realistic and prudent. They take account of the wider external environment and some scenario planning for future spending reductions. These include changes in council tax income and potential increases in costs associated with the pension scheme.

Despite the challenges it has faced, and the need to increase its budget to improve operational performance, we are pleased to see that the service has continued to identify savings to be made over the course of its MTFP. The chief fire officer and leadership team have been involved in developing these proposals. They told us they believe the forecasted savings that need to be found within operational areas are achievable.

The service has established reserves and has a clear strategy to manage them

At the time of our last inspection, the service didn’t have any financial reserves, a capital plan or any capital funding. Encouragingly, the service has since met its own objective of establishing an adequate level of general reserves within three years of the governance change.

The service has a sensible and sustainable plan for using its reserves. Of the £4.433m planned reserves at 31 March 2022, £2.433m of this is earmarked for essential capital investment and budgetary risks during 2022/23. This includes a range of investments in fleet, estates and ICT, which have all been subject to long-term lack of spend under the previous governance arrangements.

The service is beginning to introduce change in its fleet and estates

In our last inspection we identified that the service needed robust plans to consider the future management of its fleet and properties. The service has since developed plans to introduce change in both these areas.

There are strategies in place that are beginning to reverse the previous under-investment, including:

  • procuring eight new fire engines and an aerial appliance to replace assets past their end of life;
  • developing a detailed plan to carry out urgent remedial work and modifications at fire stations in the next three years; and
  • developing a joint police and fire fleet workshop.

As the service moves into its next IRMP in April 2022 and conducts further reviews of its operational response model, it should ensure the fleet and estates strategies are linked closely to the reviews’ outcomes.

The service’s collaborative work is improving its capacity for future change

The service has put in place the capacity and capability needed to achieve sustainable transformation, and it routinely seeks opportunities to work with others to improve efficiency and provide better services in the future. For example, the joint human resources (HR) team within enabling services now contains seven HR advisors with different areas of expertise. Before November 2021, a single HR business partner supported the entire service. This is just one example of the way the collaboration has improved capacity and access to a workforce with a greater range of skills.

Since our last inspection, the enabling services function has developed a detailed ICT strategy. Its aim is to help the service exploit changes in technology to improve its efficiency and effectiveness. But many of these projects are in their early stages and are yet to bring the necessary improvements. The service has been focusing on improving infrastructure (for example, servers) with detailed plans to be put in place over the coming years. This should be an area of priority for the service.

The service is beginning to consider opportunities for income generation

The service considers options for generating extra income, but its ambition and track record in securing extra income is limited. It has developed a draft commercial strategy and has committed to a £25,000 income generation target for the year 2023/24.

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