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Tyne and Wear 2021/22

Efficiency

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

Last updated 27/07/2022
Good

Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency is good.

Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service was good in its 2018/19 assessment.

The service is investing in frontline resources and digital and data transformation. It is good at working with other organisations to generate savings for the public.

The service does, however, need to continue to take steps to reduce how much it relies on pre-planned overtime. It also needs to further develop its business continuity plans.

The service is affordable now and for the immediate future. Although it could make further efficiencies to its operations through making innovative changes.

Questions for Efficiency

1

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

Good

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

Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service was good 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 2019/20 is £49.9m. This is a 3.1 percent increase from the previous financial year.

Areas for improvement

The service should make sure its programme for testing business continuity plans is fully implemented.

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

Plans to support service objectives need to be based on risk

The service’s financial and workforce plans, including allocating staff to prevention, protection and response, reflect and are consistent with service priorities. But some decisions are not always aligned to risk.

As a result of a legal ruling, the service has changed its crewing arrangements at two fire stations. On-call staff now provide cover during the night at one of these fire stations. This is despite neighbouring fire stations providing a faster response. The decision by the fire and rescue authority isn’t aligned to the risk identified by the service and is less efficient than the option recommended by the chief fire officer.

The service plans to reduce the number of special fire engines it has for attending tall buildings from three to two. But these fire engines will have dedicated crews. This will generate a capital saving and provide a faster response to fires in tall buildings.

Financial plans are built on sound scenarios. They help make sure the service is sustainable and are underpinned by financial controls that reduce the risk of misusing public money. All budget holders receive training and have regular meetings with the finance manager to monitor spending and identify areas for further savings. The service also complies with statutory requirements for managing public finances and is audited independently.

Staff productivity continues to improve but overtime remains high

We are pleased to see that the service’s arrangements for managing performance clearly link resource use to the IRMP and service’s strategic priorities.

The service is taking steps to make sure the workforce’s time is as productive as possible. This includes implementing new ways of working. For example, operational staff have clear objectives for training, prevention, protection and gathering risk information. Staff in prevention and protection have targets linked to local risks.

The service has improved performance monitoring and uses IT to provide real-time data that is accessible and simple to understand.

The service had to adapt its working practices because of the pandemic, and these are still part of its day-to-day activity. These include operational staff making safe and well visits without entering homes unless risks are identified during face-to-face assessments. Hybrid working is now commonplace and videocalls have become an accepted way of working to reduce travel time and costs, as well as reducing the environmental impact of avoidable journeys.

The service relies on high levels of pre-arranged overtime to cover gaps in crewing. In 2019/20, the service spent £826 per head of workforce on pre-arranged overtime, compared with an England average of £478. The service is addressing this and has run 3 wholetime recruits’ courses in 18 months. This has reduced total spend on pre‑arranged overtime by 5.7 percent in 2020/21.

Collaboration is good and extensive

We are pleased to see the service meets its statutory duty to collaborate, and routinely considers opportunities to collaborate with other emergency responders. The service works with 25 different organisations to provide 76 areas of co-location. Main partners for co-locating are Northumbria Police and North East Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust. The service headquarters host the CCTV control room for Sunderland City Council, using space made redundant by improvements in technology. This returns an overall financial saving to the public and a more resilient service.

Collaborative work is aligned to the priorities in the service’s IRMP. For example, the SafetyWorks! facility, provided in collaboration with the office of the police and crime commissioner and a local transport company, communicates prevention messages and activities to young people and vulnerable groups in the community.

The service comprehensively monitors, reviews and evaluates the benefits and results of its collaborations. Notable results include work with the RNLI where the RNLI calculates that five lives have been saved from drowning, through education and training of staff in local businesses.

Gaps in business continuity arrangements require improvement

The service continues to have gaps in its continuity arrangements for areas where threats and risks are considered high. For example, arrangements for industrial action rely on an assessment of low risk of strikes taking place. We also saw evidence that plans to test business continuity arrangements for a full outage of IT had yet to take place.

Business continuity plans for the control room are good and we saw these had been tested against a range of scenarios. Plans for dealing with the ongoing pandemic continue to be reviewed and tested.

Financial management is sound

There are regular reviews to consider all the service’s expenditure, including its non‑pay costs, and this scrutiny makes sure the service gets value for money. For example, the service has robust procurement arrangements in place and effective contract management. The procurement team has been recognised in national awards for their effectiveness.

The service has made savings and efficiencies, which haven’t affected its operational performance and the service it provides to the public. Savings that were reported to the fire authority for 2019/20 included £888,000 in revenue savings and £225,000 savings in capital outlay. Previous savings of £2.41m are recorded from reviews of working practices of non-operational areas, and £1.69m from a management review.

The service is taking steps to make sure important areas, including estates, fleet and procurement, are well placed to achieve efficiency gains through sound financial management and best working practices. The strategy for estates is comprehensive and links directly to strategic plans, including the medium-term financial plan. The strategy for estates identifies 14 organisations the service has partnership or collaboration arrangements with, to drive efficiencies and improve services to the public.

Fleet and asset management is good, with collaboration used to make savings. The service has arrangements in place with Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service to support cost-effective fleet maintenance for both services. Arrangements are also in place with Cleveland Fire Brigade to share costs of maintaining compressors for breathing apparatus cylinders. Fire stations are also used by Northumbria Police to access cheaper fuel through the service’s procurement arrangements.

2

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

Good

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

Tyne and Wear 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.

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

The service is good at improving value for money

We are encouraged to see the improvements the service has made since our 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 medium-term financial plan extends to 2025 and relies on a reasonable assumption of growth of 2.4 percent in the base budget from £49.9m to £51.1m by 2025.

The underpinning assumptions are robust, realistic, and prudent, and take account of the wider external environment and some scenario planning for future spending reductions. These include an assumption of a maximum 2 percent increase in annual council tax income. The service anticipates compensation from central government for loss of revenue from business rates.

We are pleased to see that the service has identified savings and investment opportunities to improve the service to the public or generate further savings. The service has saved £225,000 from the capital budget and £653,000 through improved procurement and contract management. It gets £345,000 from co-location with other services. The service now directs 93 percent of its non-salary costs through national framework agreements and managed contracts to get value for money.

The service has identified a range of financial risks and has set aside reserves to manage these risks. Risks identified include volatility of insurance costs, early retirements, private finance initiative scheme costs and reductions in government grant schemes. Contingency plans to reduce capital expenditure are in place to protect revenue budgets from any reasonable financial shocks.

Financial reserves are high but with sound plans in place

In 2019/20, the service had a higher rate of reserves, at 58.8 percent of total expenditure, than other metropolitan services at 43.2 percent. However, the service has a detailed policy for using reserves up to 2025.

The policy for the reserves includes using them to offset the £2m business rate deficit using government funding for 75 percent of losses caused by the pandemic.

Other plans include £8.3m for transformation and reform to support investment in modernising the service and £3.5m for contingency planning and unforeseen costs.

Plans for fleet and estates have strong links to strategic plans

The service strategies for fleet and estates are aligned with the service’s IRMP. Both strategies exploit opportunities to improve efficiency and effectiveness. This is planned through continuing collaboration and partnerships to share and reduce costs with other fire and rescue services, other emergency services and local authorities.

The estate strategy supports 76 examples of co-location with 25 partners. The fleet strategy supports continuing collaboration using national frameworks and joint fire engine procurement and vehicle maintenance.

The strategies are regularly reviewed so that the service can properly assess the impact of any changes in estate and fleet provision or future innovation on risk.

Improvements in digital and data are central to service strategy for transformation

The service actively considers how changes in technology and future innovation may affect risk. It is in the process of replacing all its fire engines. New fire engines are designed to support firefighter safety and be better for the environment.

The service also seeks to exploit opportunities to improve efficiency and effectiveness presented by changes in technology. Working practices have evolved with improved digital platforms, online learning for all staff and performance management through better IT. The service now uses Power BI to monitor performance across the service and to inform its plans.

The service has put in place the capacity and capability needed for sustainable transformation, and it routinely seeks opportunities to work with others to improve efficiency and provide better services in the future. It has invested £1.3m over the past 3 years in IT and has increased the numbers of staff working in IT from 9 to 19.

Investments have been made in cloud technology, new hardware and portable devices, upgraded servers, storage and a new intranet. Improvements in digital and data are now central to the service strategy for 2021 to 2025 and a detailed transformational policy links to the medium-term financial plan.

The service is good at generating income and securing funding opportunities

The service actively considers and exploits opportunities for generating extra income. The service receives around £345,000 each year through co-location schemes, which will continue to grow as new schemes start. This includes the co-location
of the CCTV monitoring suite for Sunderland City Council that is now housed at service headquarters.

Where appropriate, the service has secured external funding to invest in improvements to the service provided to the public. This includes around £600,000 for protection activities to respond to the recommendations made from Phase 1 of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.

The service has established a new trading arm

The service has a newly established trading arm called TWFRS Ltd. The trading arm doesn’t yet generate income and at the time of our inspection was waiting for legal agreements to be completed.

We expect that lessons learned from liquidating the previous trading arm will be implemented with TWFRS Ltd.

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