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Cumbria 2021/22

Efficiency

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

Last updated 20/01/2023
Inadequate

Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency is inadequate.

Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service was good in its 2018/19 assessment

At the time of our inspection, a local government reorganisation was taking place in Cumbria. This means Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service wasn’t certain of its future governance arrangements as of 1 April 2023. These unusual circumstances have restricted its ability to have financial plans in place. For this reason, we were unable to grade the service as anything other than inadequate.

We are disappointed to find that the service isn’t using its workforce in the most productive way. Some paper-based systems are still in place, and some IT systems are inefficient and create duplication. The service has made some investment in technology but could do more. As part of the governance restructure, it might consider what systems it needs to support the activities set out in its integrated risk management plan (IRMP).

Questions for Efficiency

1

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

Requires improvement

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

Cumbria 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 2022/23 is £21m. This is a 3 percent increase from the previous financial year.

Areas for improvement

  • The service needs to ensure it uses its resources across prevention, protection and response functions in a more joined-up way to meet the priorities in its integrated risk management plan.
  • The service should assure itself that all processes in place to support performance management are effective.
  • The service should ensure it effectively monitors, reviews and evaluates the benefits and outcomes of any collaboration activity.

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

The service needs to ensure it has resource plans to support its objectives

We were pleased to see that since our 2019 inspection, the service has increased the resources in its protection department. But the resources it allocates to prevention aren’t consistent with the risks and priorities identified in its IRMP. We found that although capacity is tight, the service could use its resources better to achieve its aims. For example, firefighters carry out many home safety visits, but these aren’t targeted at those of highest risk.

An internal audit identified an area of risk, but the service hasn’t resourced this area well enough. The internal audit included several recommendations relating to operational assurance, but progress in this area has been slow. The service attributes this to a lack of resources.

Since our 2019 inspection the service has secured £1m extra funding, representing 5 percent of the revenue budget. It has used this funding to increase its resources across several functions, including the on-call duty system, training, and equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). The extra funding was included in the budget in 2020/21 and 2021/22, but we found that not all the benefits of this investment have been realised yet. The service should assure itself that it is achieving value for money from this significant investment.

The service’s budget is part of the county council budget. We found suitable financial controls through the county council monitoring and scrutiny arrangements. This reduces the risk of misusing public money.

The service could do more to improve its productivity

We are pleased to see that the service’s arrangements for managing performance clearly link resource use to the IRMP and the service’s strategic priorities. Since our 2019 inspection, the service has introduced a new performance framework and dashboards for managing performance. This has helped managers by giving them one place to review how their teams are performing.

But we found that while there is now a system for measuring performance, there is a lack of performance culture. The service isn’t consistently using the system to drive performance improvements. Some managers told us they don’t have time to use or analyse the information as often as they should. An example of this is monitoring individual training records.

The service hasn’t identified the contribution it will make towards the national productivity target (using an extra 3 percent of national wholetime firefighter capacity to carry out additional prevention and protection work).

We found that the service still uses some paper-based systems, such as for prevention activity. And some IT systems are inefficient. This results in duplication and inconsistent recording of information.

The service receives occupational health, HR and other support from the county council. Staff told us there were often delays in the provision of this support and that this has an impact on the quality of the fire service.

Since our 2019 inspection, the service has implemented some new ways of working. For example, it has put in place a new asset management system, which has helped firefighters complete daily checks more efficiently. The service had to adapt its working practices because of the pandemic, and these are still part of its day‑to-day activity. For example, some staff can work in a hybrid way, combining remote and office working.

The service explores opportunities to collaborate with others

We are pleased to see the service meets its statutory duty to collaborate, and it routinely considers opportunities to collaborate with other emergency responders. It shares the Ulverston Fire Station with Cumbria Constabulary and North West Ambulance Service NHS Trust. The service also has a joint command unit with the police, and it works with the ambulance service to help reach people faster and gain entry when appropriate.

Collaborative work is aligned to the priorities in the service’s IRMP. But we weren’t satisfied that the service routinely monitors, reviews and evaluates the benefits and results of its collaborations.

The service has plans to review its business continuity arrangements

The service has good continuity arrangements in place for areas where threats and risks are considered high. These threats and risks are regularly reviewed and tested so staff are aware of the arrangements and their associated responsibilities. The service has a degradation plan to manage the impact of significant operational events and maintain delivery of its key functions. Fire control also has arrangements in place with other fire and rescue services to take calls if needed.

The service told us it is currently reviewing its plan outlining how it would carry out its statutory functions in the event of industrial action.

The service could do more to demonstrate value for money

There are regular reviews to consider all the service’s expenditure, including its non‑pay costs. The service operates a budget monitoring system, which holds individual budget owners to account. The county council’s corporate budget monitoring group manages underspends or requests for extra money monthly.

The service could take more steps to ensure it can become more efficient through sound financial management and best working practices in important areas such as estates, fleet and procurement. For example, we found no evidence that the service conducts benchmarking. This would help it make sure it is getting value for money in its procurement processes.

But we found that the service does carry out some joint procurement with neighbouring fire and rescue services in the northwest of England. Joint procurement has included cutting equipment, which the service uses when responding to road traffic accidents.

2

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

Inadequate

Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service is inadequate at making the service affordable now and in the future.

Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service was good 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.

Cause of concern

At the time of our inspection, the service didn’t have clarity about its future governance arrangements. This means the service had not clarified its financial position beyond 1 April 2023, when Cumbria County Council will cease to exist.

Recommendations

By March 2023, the service should provide an update that sets out its financial position before the new governance arrangements come into effect on 1 April 2023.

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

The service doesn’t understand its financial position beyond 1 April 2023

As part of the Local Government Reform programme, the UK Government announced in July 2021 that Cumbria County Council and 6 district councils in Cumbria will cease to exist. From 1 April 2023, they will be replaced by 2 new unitary authorities called Cumberland, and Westmorland and Furness. One of the outcomes of this decision is that governance responsibility for Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service will move from Cumbria County Council to a new organisation.

There were two possible options:

  1. A combined fire authority made up of elected members from the two unitary authorities; or
  2. The police, fire and crime commissioner – transferring the governance of the fire service to the police and crime commissioner.

In March 2022, Cumbria’s police and crime commissioner submitted to the Home Secretary a business case for taking responsibility for the governance of Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service. At the time of our inspection, the Home Secretary hadn’t made a decision. The service found itself in the challenging situation of having to plan its future based on two possible governance models.

This uncertainty has affected how the service can plan for the future. At the time of our inspection, it didn’t have in place financial and resourcing plans that reflect its operating context from 1 April 2023, including funding and spending plans for revenue and capital. There was uncertainty about its assets and liabilities. This is because disaggregation of the Cumbria County Council budget hadn’t yet concluded. The county council currently provides support services to the fire service, such as finance, IT, legal, HR and property management functions. Alternative arrangements will need to be put in place for these functions.

There are clear arrangements to access and use reserves

At the time of our inspection and until 31 March 2023, the fire service reserves are held centrally by the county council. We found there is a robust process for the service to bid for reserves if they are needed. The service has £416,000 in earmarked reserves, which are held to pay for known projects such as the introduction of the Emergency Services Network.

Fleet and estate strategies aren’t currently driving efficiency and effectiveness

Local government reorganisation has affected the service’s access to funding to modernise its estate. We found that some buildings need investment to meet health and safety and equality requirements, including several without dedicated female changing and showering facilities.

The service has a clear process for procuring new vehicles, but the current vehicle replacement programme has been delayed due to the pandemic and global supply issues. One way the service is managing this delay is by extending the lifespan of certain vehicles and reviewing types and locations of vehicles.

The service could do more to assess the effect any changes in fleet and asset provision or future innovation may have on risk. The service aims to review its fleet and asset strategy annually, but it appears to take place at ad-hoc intervals.

The service could do more to invest in technology to support change and improve efficiency

We found some evidence of the service considering how changes in technology and future innovation could improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its workforce. For example, it has introduced an asset management system and firefighters use a mobilising application. But the service recognises it could use technology more to improve efficiency.

We found that digital transformation is delivered at a county council level and the service often has to compete with other council projects.

The service has limited capacity and capability to bring about sustainable future change. The service may wish to consider this when reviewing its future service model.

Income generation is no longer a focus for the service

The service considers options for generating extra income, but its ambition and track record in securing extra income is limited. Despite the service having a strategic objective on income generation in its IRMP, we found this has become less of a focus for the service since our last inspection.

Where appropriate, it has obtained external grant funding to invest in improvements to the service it provides to the public. This funding includes grants given to the service following the Grenfell Tower fire and the pandemic.