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Northumberland 2021/22

Efficiency

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

Last updated 15/12/2021
Requires improvement

Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency requires improvement.

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

We found Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service to be making positive changes. But it has made limited progress against some of the recommendations from our 2019 inspection.

Its financial management is generally good. It has made good use of its reserves. We saw improved resourcing to the service’s prevention, protection and response functions. But support services are still stretched.

The service collaborates with the county council and other fire and rescue services. It could be more ambitious in this area. It still needs to improve its plans for business continuity and for exercising.

We were pleased with how well it manages its fleet and estates. But the link between the IRMP and the individual strategies for fleet and estates are not explicit. The service has only limited funding and ambition for generating income.

Questions for Efficiency

1

How does the FRS make best use of its resources?

Requires improvement

Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service requires improvement at making best use of its resources.

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

Fire and rescue services should manage their resources properly and appropriately, aligning those resources to meet the services’ risks and statutory responsibilities. They should make best possible use of their resources to achieve better outcomes for the public.

Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service’s statement of assurance for 2019/20 reported a net revenue budget of £15,320,740. This is a 9.2 percent increase from the previous financial year.

Areas for improvement

  • The service should make sure there is a testing programme for its business continuity plans, particularly in high-risk areas of service.
  • The service should have effective measures in place to assure itself that its workforce is productive and that their time is used as efficiently and effectively as possible to meet the priorities in the IRMP.
  • The service should actively seek collaboration opportunities with other emergency services, and beyond, to achieve value for money and better outcomes for the public.

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

Improved financial planning

We were encouraged to see the improvements the service has made since the last inspection. The service’s financial plans are not being linked to the specific risks identified in the IRMP. But it can show how the allocation of staff to prevention, protection and response reflects the risks and priorities identified in the Year 5 update to the IRMP.

Plans are built on sound scenario planning. They help make sure the service is sustainable. And they are underpinned by financial controls that reduce the risk of misusing public money.

There are close and effective financial arrangements with the county council. The service finance manager is part of the county council’s finance team and participates in the service’s management team. This helps ensure sound oversight of the spending and revenue for the service’s functions. We were informed from a range of sources that the fire and rescue service budget is now funded at a level that allows it to meet local risks. The service is no longer subject to previous savings targets that were unachievable and unsustainable.

Productivity remains a challenge in areas of working

In our 2019 inspection, we identified that the service was not monitoring working hours well enough. It has got better at this, but it is still not managing working hours effectively.

The service is taking steps to make sure the workforce’s time is as productive as possible. This includes a new policy and performance framework. A strategic policy, risk and performance officer, a newly created post, oversees this to scrutinise and improve performance.

During the inspection, it was clear that staff in support roles are working to capacity. But the service’s current arrangements for managing productivity haven’t yet identified strategic priorities for support functions. These priorities would allow support staff to work as effectively as possible. We heard from support staff who would benefit from a review of workloads and priorities. This would help them to direct their efforts in the right areas.

The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated changes to working practices that are being implemented as business as usual. These include the increased use of flexible working arrangements and improved use of communications to reduce travel and costs.

Collaboration could be broader and more ambitious

The service needs to consider collaboration and evaluate the collaborations that it is involved in. Most of the collaboration we saw related to joint working through the council. This included the sharing of fire stations for council functions, as well as with Northumbria Police and North East Ambulance Service. We also heard of shared estate to support the local mountain rescue team. This benefits the community.

Other notable collaboration projects include the joint procurement of uniforms with County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service; and fleet maintenance with Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service. Collaboration generates some savings, but we think more could be achieved if the service looked further afield.

Overall, the service needs to improve how it monitors, reviews and evaluates the benefits and outcomes of collaborative activity. It could use this to learn and inform decisions.

Continuity arrangements need reviewing

The service needs to go on improving its continuity arrangements, as identified in our 2019 inspection.

For example, the business continuity arrangements for control have not been exercised, because of COVID-19 restrictions.

In June 2020, the service’s own improvement action plan highlighted that there was no timeframe for completing plans to review all business continuity arrangements.

Continuity arrangements need to be regularly reviewed and tested to ensure staff are fully aware of the arrangements and their associated responsibilities.

Sound financial management of fleet and estates

We were encouraged to see the improvements the service has made since the last inspection.

There are regular reviews to consider all the service’s expenditure, including its non‑pay costs, and challenge makes sure the service gets value for money. We consider that the service is taking good steps to ensure its fleet and estate provision is relevant to the future needs of the service.

For example, by reviewing its fleet profile and extending the life of some vehicles, the service has identified savings of £780,000. The service also competitively tests its fleet spending and benchmarks itself against national statistics from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy and best value performance indicators. The service has also identified net savings of £60,000 by reviewing its private finance initiative contracts for Pegswood and West Hartford fire stations.

Savings and efficiencies made have had no disproportionate impact on operational performance and the service to the public.

2

How well is the FRS securing an affordable way of managing the risk of fire and other risks now and in the future?

Requires improvement

Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service requires improvement at making itself affordable now and in the future.

Northumberland 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 should invest in better services for the public.

Areas for improvement

  • The service should make sure that its fleet and estates management programmes are linked to the IRMP, and that it understands the impact future changes to those programmes may have on its service to the public.
  • The service needs to assure itself that it is maximising opportunities to improve workforce productivity and develop future capacity through innovation, including 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.

Improving value for money

We are encouraged to see the improvements the service has made since the last inspection. The service has developed a sound understanding of future financial challenges. It plans to mitigate its main or significant financial risks. For example, the service has worked with the county council to secure reserve funding to help meet future requirements. And it has agreed levels of savings that ensure an appropriate budget for the immediate future.

The underpinning assumptions are relatively robust, realistic and prudent. They take account of the wider external environment and some scenario planning for future spending reductions. These include:

  • the reduced savings target from £960,000 to £100,000;
  • the impact of COVID-19; and
  • recommendations from Phase 1 of the Grenfell Tower inquiry, where funding has been secured to allow for growth in fire protection.

We have also seen the service consider costs for the firefighter pension detriment settlement, and funding reserved for the national emergency services mobile communications project (ESMCP).

We noted the service is taking steps to harness innovation in the use of green technologies. It has fitted solar panels at two fire stations, with plans for four more sites. The service has also invested in ground-source heat pumps at eight fire stations, to reduce running costs and carbon footprint.

Good management of reserves

We are encouraged to see the improvements the service has made since the last inspection. The service has a sensible and sustainable plan for using its reserves. This plan includes:

  • £250,000 reserves for the firefighter pension detriment settlement;
  • £206,000 reserves for ESMCP; and
  • grants received to support the recommendations made from Phase 1 of the Grenfell Tower inquiry.

The service does not hold reserves that are not earmarked as it has access to council reserves for unforeseen events. Current reserves are approximately 3 percent of the service’s total budget.

Strategies for fleet and estates need to be linked to the IRMP

We are encouraged to see good management and oversight for fleet and estates. Our inspection identified a clear understanding of current and future requirements for management of costs, including contracts and suppliers. For fleet management, this was through fire service staff, who showed a thorough understanding of costs and supply networks.

The county council oversees management of costs for estates. It includes fire stations in the council estates strategy.

But the service needs to ensure that its strategies for both estate and fleet align with the IRMP. This will ensure it can exploit opportunities to improve efficiency and effectiveness now and in the future.

Transformation can be improved

The service is considering how changes in technology and future innovation can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its workforce.

The service, with the council, is shifting to greater use of digital technologies in its communications and IT infrastructure. The service should set out its ambitions for innovation and development in the use of digital data and technology. It should work more closely with the council to progress this.

The service has earmarked funding for ESMCP. But we were told the service decided against introducing multi-agency incident transfer, based on cost, even though other emergency services in the region already have this facility and it is a recommendation from Phase 1 of the Grenfell Tower inquiry.

The service has limited capacity and capability to bring about sustainable future change. But it can, through its work with the council and other blue light services, improve efficiency. The service needs to set out its ambition and define the benefits it seeks to achieve.

Income generation

The service normally generates income from its training activities. But the COVID-19 pandemic meant there was very little activity in 2019-21. The service also receives income by taking emergency calls for the county council outside normal working hours. And it receives some private funding to support community safety events.

The June 2021 improvement action plan shows that the service is considering income generation through a wider county council trading arm. We didn’t see details of this.