By RYAN TAYLOR
SHETLAND’S already stretched capital programme may have a new addition – helping to improve rural fire stations – after the Scottish government halved funding for such work.
SIC convener Sandy Cluness said the council could help fund local projects after hearing that several stations across the isles were in need of attention – but he was warned by finance chief Graham Johnston that this would have to be at the expense of other local projects.
It followed a visit from convener of Highlands and Islands Fire Board, Richard Durham, who told councillors at a special SIC meeting on Tuesday that the fire service would struggle to continue replacing two fire stations a year across the region at an average cost of £500,000, as it has been doing recently.
Members discussed offering help through the capital programme, or even offering a lease-back deal through Shetland Charitable Trust’s property trading arm SLAP.
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Cluness said help could be provided through the capital programme, although the authority would find itself in a bizarre situation that it was paying running costs to itself.
“Our concern is to ensure we can upgrade the stations we have, so we have to look at some innovative way of doing that and that’s what our officers will take up with them [the fire board].
“It would just have to come from our own capital. If folks’ lives are in danger because you can’t operate a fire engine from a certain area then we really need to think about that because where folks’ safety and lives are concerned safety has to take priority.
“I’m happy with the way the service is run despite all the difficulties we have, but I think we have to look at how best we can do it in the future. It’s difficult for us because nationally what happens is we pay out a share of the running costs of over £2 million a year, and we get a good service.
“The capital for providing better stations and fire engines and things comes from central government, and it seems the fire brigade is getting very little for the next few years.
“We could help out, but we’d also be paying for the running costs if we provided it through SLAP. It’s difficult because we’d have to make repayments to ourselves because of that.”
Mr Durham said he would be keen to explore any possibility to get the fire board out of an increasingly deepening hole. He told the committee government funding for capital projects had halved from £1.8 million to £900,000.
Additional “top slice” funding was facing a reduction from £900,000 to £500,000 in the year ahead.
At the same time the number of retained fire stations under the brigade’s wing has grown from 30 three years ago to 95 now, spanning Shetland to Fort William.
Mr Durham said many of those stations were in desperate need of attention, and some were not fit for purpose.
He said planning ahead was increasingly difficult because funding was allocated on a year-by-year basis.
And while he praised the actions of volunteer fire fighters who serve in their communities, he warned it was an uphill struggle to provide them with facilities and equipment that was suitable.
“Since 1996… we in the Highlands and Islands got £1.8 million. We’ve been working with £1.8 million to try and achieve two stations every year, but there’s never been a long term capital plan.
“It’s important we have that. Although we’ve been managing to build two stations a year in the Highlands and Islands, everything else has dropped off. I do acknowledge the commitment people in communities give to the fire service. The reality is if money grew on trees we would have everything fixed, but it doesn’t.”
Chief fire officer Brian Murray told councillors the total cost of a new fire station could be up to £630,000 if fees and site acquisitions were factored into the equation.
A number of councillors were alarmed by the news, although Frank Roberston disputed the building costs, adding that many fire stations were simple and basic in design and cost much less than many feared.
Lerwick was given a brand new and bang up to date station recently, but the committee heard up to a dozen country stations were in need of upgrading, including ones at Scalloway, Sandwick, Baltasound, Whalsay, Hillswick and Fair Isle.
Although the vast bulk of the brigade’s capital spend goes on buildings, substantial amounts are still needed to buy equipment and vehicles.
The cost of kitting out a fireman with necessary equipment runs to almost £2,000, while a new fire engine costs £197,500.
Mr Durham said the brigade had sought out imaginative ways of saving money, by buying – in one instance – used fire engines instead of new ones.
“I have no problem buying a used fire engine for £25,000 when a new one costs £200,000. It’s not an ideal situation, but it is satisfactory.”
He was keen to exploit partnerships with other bodies, such as in Baltasound where plans were drawn up to take over the Unst Inshore building after it transpired the company was moving to new premises.
Another partnership has been found in Bixter, where an old builder’s workshop had found new life as a fire station.
Alastair Cooper said he was particularly worried about Whalsay, given the overall size of the community there and the length of time it would take for a fire engine to get to the isle to help out if it needed to.
Mr Johnston said something would have to give from the council’s existing list of capital projects if help was offered to the fire board.
He said the fire service itself would not want to see things going ahead in one local authority area and “languishing” in others.
“I think the preference for the convener of the fire board would be to sort things out with the national government with regard to national funding.
“In the probable event that that is not satisfactory the fire board will be looking for any other avenues to get projects built in these areas. It’s a possibility they’d want to see us at least having a look at making our resources available. We are already more than fully committed to our own local authority priorities.”
In the meantime, Mr Cluness said his own preferred option would be to let Shetland run its own fire service. Adding that he was anxious not to “rock the boat”, he said it might help achieve results in a “simple” manner.
“I wonder if they [the fire board] are going to be continually starved of resources we couldn’t use that £2 million locally. We’d then have to pay extra for training and so on but it might be worth looking at.”