By Ian Donovan
On 15th November, Southwark Socialists (local ISN Branch in Southwark, South London) held a modestly successful public meeting in Peckham, just down the road from Peckham Fire Station, which is threatened with closure due to Boris Johnson’s cuts.
This meeting was to kick off campaigning in Southwark against the Fire Station closures, and hopefully also play some role in facilitating a wider, all-London fight against the closures.
Around 40 attended the meeting, about a third of who were firefighters including half a dozen who came in part way through the meeting having just finished their shift at Peckham Fire Station.
Three main speakers addressed the meeting, which was chaired by Nick Wrack of Southwark Socialists. They were Ian Leahair, London regional Fire Brigades Union (FBU) representative on the FBU NEC, Dave Lewis, the secretary of the nearby Sceaux Gardens Tenants and Residents Association, and Simon Chapman, FBU secretary for the London Borough of Southwark.
Ian Leahair noted that the Mayor is planning to close 17 Fire Stations out of 112 in London at the moment. These include three local stations, Peckham, Southwark and New Cross. The FBU is planning to take a stand on this, but needs local communities to get involved. We have to pressure the Mayor himself to back down over this, since even if the Fire Authority were to reject these cuts, Boris Johnson has the power to overrule them and likely do so. There will be a full lobby of City Hall by Firefighters in uniform against this, but we need a mass turn-out by the public to make it effective.
Ian pointed out that these cuts will cost lives. It is being claimed that no decision has been taken as yet, but for instance Whitechapel Fire Station, which is earmarked for closure, has received notice that planning permission has already been granted to build a 28 storey, 328-room hotel on its site. This is representative of what will happen: all of these fire stations are on prime sites and will make a lot of money when the sites are sold.
The main driver of these plans is the budget, not risk. It is claimed by the Fire Authorities that the response times will remain the same. But these are averages, not actual amounts. And it is a fact that even now, four London boroughs do no manage to achieve the target response times. How can they be achieved after these cuts?
Dave Lewis spoke next. He lives in Marie Curie House, Camberwell. His (Sceaux Gardens) Tenants and Residents Association includes Lakanal House, where a terrible fire killed 6 people – 3 women and 3 children – in July 2009. He stated his total opposition to the Fire Station closures and, overcome by emotion repeatedly throughout his speech, gave the audience a sense of the harm and trauma suffered by residents of his estate as a result of the fire.
The fire started in a 9th floor flat, after which secondary fires below were caused by falling debris. The fire also unexpectedly spread upwards, apparently because of design faults and possibly risky modifications made by the council to the stair in the flats, which are in fact interlocking maisonettes. This made it very difficult to prevent the deaths that occurred as firefighters’ safety rules do not allow them to go above a fire in these circumstances; they have to fight it from below. Nevertheless, if local fire cover had not been available, there could have been many more deaths.
People had to be re-housed all over the borough. All were traumatised. Not just those at Lakanal but also those at Marie Curie House on the same estate that is of identical design, suffered trauma. Many people at Lakanal lost their livelihoods and all their possessions.
An investigation by Fire Safety says there is insufficient evidence to prosecute Southwark Council for corporate manslaughter, though the Health and Safety executive are still investigating the fire.
Dave explained that the much-delayed inquest begins in January. There have been four pre-inquest hearings, at which residents have been denied ‘interested party’ status. But they may be able to raise questions, at the discretion of the coroner. Legal aid has been denied to the TRA. But they have managed to raise £8000 in a legal appeal, and have also had considerable volunteered legal support.
Simon Chapman then spoke, pointing out that this is not just about money and jobs, but the wider community. The London Fire Brigade used to say it worked on risk. Not anymore. Now it is being run on cost. There is a 15% budget cut being planned over 2 years. That is a planned saving of £65 million. But closing the 17 stations currently targeted will only save £25 million. Therefore they are £40 million short of their target. There will thus inevitably be another, bigger wave of closures of London Fire Stations if they succeed in closing these initial 17.
Even that is only the start. From a 15% cut in two years, there are plans to move to a 25% over five years. That means much bigger cuts to come.
They say they will continue to make Fire Brigade attendance times with these cuts. But even now, before any cuts, 4 London boroughs do not make these times which are 6 minutes for the first fire engine, and 8 minutes for the second.
In Southwark, this means 2 out of 4 current fire stations will close. But in reality, with the closure of New Cross, which is on the border of Southwark and regularly overlaps, this means the loss of 3 local Fire Stations.
The London Fire Brigade claims that they will still be able to achieve these times, on the basis of a computer model. But they have refused to have it independently audited. They also say that there are now one third less fires than 10 years ago. But this is largely due to Fire Safety work, visits etc., done by firefighters, and their distribution of free smoke alarms etc.
Simon concluded by asking: “what are we going to do about this? We need to have a single campaign for all London. MP’s letters, mass demonstrations.”
There was then a lively discussion from the floor about the issues raised by the speakers and what to do next. Ghada, who used to be a firefighter herself, pointed out that “We can save these stations. Part of the problem is that the public don’t know about the stations closing.” Another speaker, Pam, was critical of the current lack of strategy of the unions, “just occasional huge demos like the one in October and a year earlier. We need to demand the nationalisation of the banks. We need a socialist programme.”
Sue Plain, secretary of Southwark Trades Union Council, which supported the meeting, spoke about another recent example of a terrible incident, the Carisbrooke fire in Peckham, which started on a building site and spread in seconds to residential property forcing people to flee for their lives. She pointed out that people who think their council tax will be cut because of this are kidding themselves; insurance premium will go up enormously if fire cover is cut.
Chris Cooper, the secretary of Southwark UNISON, pointed out that “this is not just about first and second response times, but subsequent responses in the event of a major fire like Lakanal. If there are no local stations, where will the fire crews come from?”
Other firefighters spoke in the discussion, Chris from Dockhead fire station cited estimates that once these stations have closed, there will be 6000 extra calls a year to be dealt with by the remaining local fire stations. This means community safety will suffer enormously, and it is certain that the incidences of fires will rise again. And Linda Smith summed up the anti-social mentality of the cuts “This is severe cuts over not a very large amount of money. It costs around £57 in council tax per year to run the London Fire Brigade.”
Just after 8.30pm, half a dozen firefighters from Peckham Fire Station came into the meeting, and the Red Watch manager, John Stevens, addressed the meeting, noting “Southwark, Peckham New Cross are huge densely populated areas to leave without local fire cover. This is very worrying. This is the thin end of the wedge: we could face the closure of up to half of all fire stations in London.”
At the conclusion of the discussion, before the speakers briefly came back, Brian Kelly of Southwark Socialists summed it up well “We need a community-based campaign. Trade unions must take this up as a class attack. Don’t rely on politicians.”
This was a useful meeting to lay the basis for resistance to this crucial aspect of the government’s all sided attack on all kinds of social and safety provision. But much more has to be done, obviously.