London Letter: Historic fire stations feel the heat as Boris Johnson seeks cuts
Over 500 firefighters to leave London’s fire service as mayor orders reduced budget
Clerkenwell fire station in London, once Britain’s oldest, has been closed. Photograph: John Stillwell/PA
The red fire-tenders stationed in Clerkenwell fire station in north London left their bays 2,110 times from January 1st, 2013, to January 1st this year, just over 40 times a week.
However, they will leave no more. Britain’s oldest station – opened in 1872, according to the records – on Rosebery Avenue is now closed, one of 10 to be shuttered throughout London this month.
In the eyes of critics, Londoners have been put seriously at risk by the decision of London Fire Brigade, since fire engines, blocked by heavy central London traffic, will inevitably take longer to get to emergencies.
Over 500 firefighters will be gone, along with 14 fire engines as the brigade struggles to cope with London mayor Boris Johnson’s demand for a 20 per cent spending cut.
Spending cuts have become a feature of the brigade’s life.It leases its fire engines. Even firemen’s uniforms are leased, not bought.
Firemen argue that Johnson’s latest demand for cuts endangers lives. However, he has cover of sorts, since he ordered the brigade to save 20 per cent but did not say how it should be done. Instead, he demanded that it should do so “safely”.
Besides Clerkenwell, the other closed stations are in Belsize, Bow, Downham, Kingsland, Knightsbridge, Silvertown Southwark, Westminster and Woolwich in the east of the city.
Earlier this month, locals lined Southwark Bridge Road – where a station was first built by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in 1878 – and applauded, as the last of its engines left.
“We are sorely disappointed that these cuts are going ahead. Boris Johnson has not listened to Londoners and has chosen not to protect frontline services . . . We are deeply concerned that these cuts will lead to an increase in response times,” complained Cllr Richard Livingstone, Southwark Labour’s member with responsibility for community safety.
The station in Westminster was the one called just before Christmas when parts of the roof of the Apollo Theatre in the West End caved in, injuring nearly 80 people, during a performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
In the minutes after the emergency, it was feared that scores of people were dead, not injured. Eight fire-engines rushed to Shaftesbury Avenue. Three of those engines are no longer in service after this month’s cutbacks.
Historically, the placing of fire stations has always been influenced by poverty: the poorer the area, the greater the number of fires, the greater the need for firemen.
However, fewer fires are occurring. London Fire Brigade figures show that they have fallen by half in the last decade – on the back of better building standards, smoke-detectors and alarms.
James Cleverly, the chairman of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, said 102 stations will remain open, and that London would continue to enjoy some of the fastest response times in the UK.
Despite the cuts, the first fire-engine will still get to a fire within six minutes, and a second within eight, he promised. However, some of the affected districts, such as Belsize, have had a sub-five-minute service, so that fails to impress opponents.
The brigade, he went on, must save £45 million over the next two financial years. The closures, which have prompted public protests and local newspaper campaigns, will contribute £29 million. Everything, too, has been done to ensure that redundancies were voluntary, rather than compulsory.
But the cutbacks are coming at a time when there is pressure for every extra bed-space possible in central London – illustrated by the number of cranes on the city’s skyline.
The increasing attractions of London for property developers mean, of course, that London Fire Brigade has sought-after property to sell, particularly stations such as Westminster’s Greycoat Place.
For now, Sue Budden, the brigade’s finance director has told the London Assembly that they expect to get £50 million for the properties, though some predict a higher figure.
The brigade owns the freehold of nine of the 10 stations, though Knightsbridge – potentially the most valuable, given the insatiable demand of Russian tycoons to live there – is leasehold.
Westminster will now be served by Lambeth across the Thames, which firemen argue will inevitably cause problems in a crisis where the chances of rescue are measured in minutes and seconds.
Politicians for long shied away from confronting the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), conscious that public favour would always fall on the side of blackened-faced men who can leave fires with babies in their arms.
However, times have changed. Firemen have been exhausted, it seems, by a series of local confrontations with management, many of which they lost. In addition, the rank-and-file, who earn £34,000 a year, have been consumed by a distracting battle to protect their £14,000 a year pensions.
The FBU’s London regional secretary Paul Embery said: “Boris Johnson will have
blood on his hands. It will be only a matter of time before someone dies because a fire engine did not get to them in time.” He added: “These stations have protected generations of Londoners, and they are as necessary now as they ever were.”