Royal Berkshire 2021/22
How efficient is the fire and rescue service at keeping people safe and secure?
Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency is good.
Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service was good in its 2018/19 assessment
The service has good financial management arrangements in place and a range of assurance measures to keep control of its spending. Scenario planning is used effectively so that strategic plans are robust.
The service is making effective use of benchmarking opportunities to improve its value for money. It knows it still has buildings within its estate that need to be improved.
The service is collaborating well with other organisations to increase efficiency. Where possible, the service continues to work with other organisations to procure equipment to make sure the Thames Valley’s response to emergency incidents is consistent.
The service has made better use of technology to assist its operational effectiveness, an area of improvement identified in our previous inspection. It could improve further by assuring its workforce’s time is spent productively and through better integration of its systems.
How well is the FRS making best use of its resources?
Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service is good at making best use of its resources.
Royal Berkshire 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 was £38.5m. This is a 7.5 percent increase from the previous financial year.
Areas for improvement
The service should have effective measures in place to assure itself that its workforce is productive and that its time is used as efficiently and effectively as possible to meet the priorities in the community risk management plan.
The service’s plans support its objectives
The service’s financial and workforce plans, including allocating staff to prevention, protection and response, continue to reflect and are consistent with the risks and priorities identified in the CRMP. It divides its service area into three hubs, which are resourced according to local risk and demand. Station plans reflect the hub plans and both align activity with the service’s CRMP. Every three months, each hub reports progress against the service’s objectives to the strategic performance board. Through this regular review of performance, the service adjusts its resource allocation to meet changes in demand, risk or priorities.
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. The strategic performance board and the fire authority provide overview and scrutiny of the service’s budget performance both quarterly and annually. This regular review means the service can act when it risks not meeting its financial targets. This is supported by both internal and external audits, which haven’t found any areas of concern with the service’s financial management.
The service could increase staff productivity
We are pleased to see that the service’s arrangements for managing performance clearly link resource use to the CRMP and strategic priorities. For example, the service identified the need to focus more prevention resources in the west of the county in response to a backlog of safe and well visits following the pandemic.
Firefighters carry out some prevention and protection activity, including safe and well visits, safety education events and joint fire safety audits. The service hasn’t yet 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).
The service should do more to make sure its workforce is as productive as possible. This includes considering new ways of working. Some staff told us that they had unmanageable workloads, while others felt they had spare capacity when compared to others. Staff have completed building improvement work while on shift as opposed to activity that would support prevention or protection work. Some systems and processes can be complex, which makes it harder for the service to ensure that staff are being as productive as they can be at work.
The service hasn’t reviewed its shift patterns since 2018. It has evaluated its current operational model and understands that current patterns support staff with their cost of living through overtime opportunities. The service is considering ways it could further improve its operational model and technology systems to balance workloads. The service should assure itself that its workforce is productive and that their time is used as efficiently and effectively as possible to meet the priorities in the CRMP.
The service relies too much on overtime and still has a significant number of vacancies. It has a high number of staff in development and must use more short‑term contracts than it would like to manage areas of its work.
The service had to adapt its working practices because of the pandemic, which are still part of its day-to-day activity. These include some staff working flexibly from home or the office and using virtual meeting options to reduce unnecessary travel.
The service collaborates to achieve efficiencies
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 has a maintenance of fleet arrangement with the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Service. It also formally shares several of its facilities with South Central Ambulance Service and Thames Valley Police.
Collaborative work is aligned to the priorities in the service’s CRMP. For example, the service has bought new fire engines through the joint Thames Valley procurement contract, which supports the services when responding across the borders. It recently obtained a new aerial ladder platform in collaboration with the Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service to make sure the services can respond to an increasing number of high-rise developments in the area.
The service comprehensively monitors, reviews and evaluates the benefits and results of its collaborations. Notable results include using learnings from creating shared estates with Thames Valley Police and South Central Ambulance Service at Hungerford and Crowthorne to improve the new shared site at Theale. This ensured reduced costs for all involved.
The service has robust 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 that staff are aware of the arrangements and their associated responsibilities. During our inspection, the service put a critical event management process in place to prepare for the heat wave of July 2022. This supported the service to respond effectively during a period of increased demand.
Thames Valley Control has robust and regularly tested operational continuity arrangements in place in case of disruption, cyber-attack or a major incident requiring multiple fire survival guidance calls or a national response.
The service has sound financial management
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, an external consultant has supported the service to benchmark itself against other services. The benchmarking report identifies that the service manages costs well and has the scope to improve its efficiency through its staff, technology and estate.
The service has made savings and efficiencies, which haven’t affected its operational performance or the service for the public. These include:
- restructuring its senior and middle leadership teams and reducing the number of department heads and flexi duty officers;
- managing some of its stations in pairs with the reduced leadership teams;
- sharing fleet maintenance with Hampshire and the Isle of Wight; and
- rationalising the service’s estate, saving on maintenance costs of older properties.
This has helped it to save £2.4m in the last 5 years, as required by its efficiency plan. A thorough evaluation of the approach shows overall improvement in service provision and some opportunities for further improvements.
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 service is due to buy breathing apparatus jointly with the Thames Valley services in 2022/23. It continues to review its equipment and purchase needs through a joint Thames Valley procurement contract. This contract supports the service’s work with other Thames Valley fire services when responding across its borders.
How well does the FRS make the fire and rescue service affordable now and in the future?
Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service is good at making the service affordable now and in the future.
Royal Berkshire 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.
The service understands its future financial challenges
The service has a sound understanding of future financial challenges. It plans to mitigate its main or significant financial risks. For example, the service recognises that the property element of its capital programme isn’t fully funded from 2024/25. It submitted two previous bids to the Salix Finance Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme, which were unsuccessful. The outcome of a third bid hasn’t been decided. The service intends to review its future plans in 2022/23, considering the condition of its estate, to make best use of its available resources.
The underpinning assumptions are relatively robust, realistic and sensible. They take account of the wider external environment and some scenario planning for future spending reductions. This includes council tax precept flexibility, which has enabled an increase of £5 (7.2 percent) for a Band D property in 2022/23.
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. It has benefited from using an external company to benchmark itself against other fire and rescue services and determine where it can improve value for money. The service met its previous efficiency plan and saved £2.4m by 2022.
In the service’s medium-term financial plan, it has identified savings of £345,000 that it can make in 2022/23. This includes its successful appeal of business rate charges worth £77,000 per year. It has also identified £120,000 of the £325,000 savings it needs to make in 2023/24. The service has transferred £332,000 from its budget carry-forward reserve to its transition fund reserve. This will support invest-to-save IT projects from 2023/24.
The service maintains and makes good use of its reserves
The service has a sensible and sustainable plan for using its reserves. This plan includes holding a general reserve of £2.2m, which is 6.8 percent of its revenue budget and will mitigate against the risk of unexpected events, such as unfunded pay awards.
Fleet and estate plans are improving the service’s efficiency and effectiveness
The service’s estate and fleet strategies have clear links to the CRMP. The development of the new station at Theale was as a direct result of needing to improve the service’s response in the west of the county. Both strategies exploit opportunities to improve efficiency and effectiveness. For example, the service’s arrangement with Hampshire and Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Service for fleet maintenance saves the service approximately £69,000 per annum.
The strategies are regularly reviewed so that the service can accurately assess the impact that any changes in estate and fleet provision, or future innovation, would have on risk. The service knows that some of its estate needs improvement and it may not be able to fund all the projects. It is considering how to make best use of future available resources. At times, the service has used a self-improvement approach. This has meant station-based staff have used some of their time to improve their working environment.
The service has made improvements to its IT systems
We are encouraged to see the improvements the service has made since the previous inspection in 2019, where we identified this as an area for improvement. Some of the service’s prevention and protection activities have moved from paper-based recording to digital systems. Further improvements could still be made to better integrate the service’s systems and make sure workforce time is used as efficiently as possible.
The service actively considers how changes in technology and future innovation may affect risk. It adapted its IT strategy to meet service needs during the pandemic. It also seeks to exploit opportunities to improve efficiency and effectiveness presented by changes in technology. For example, it is using a QR code system to promote fire safety advice for residents and owners of high-rise buildings.
The service has put in place some of the capacity and capability needed to achieve sustainable transformation. It routinely seeks opportunities to work with others to improve efficiency and provide better services in the future. It should continue to consider how it can be competitive and attract those with the right skills to implement its IT strategy.
The service generates some of its income from external sources
The service actively considers and exploits opportunities for generating extra income. It continues to rent out some of its office spaces and has agreed lease terms with Thames Valley Police.
Where appropriate, it has applied for external funding to invest in improvements to the service given to the public. These include a recent application to the community infrastructure levy. The service is a member of the Fire and Rescue Indemnity Company and received a proportion of the accumulated surplus due to a lower‑than‑expected level of claims.