TAXPAYERS in Mid and West Wales will pay 13% more towards the region’s fire service in 2023-24 compared to this year.
The budget for Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service will be £63,257,200, more than £9 million more than currently.
Energy, fuel and wage inflation, and a desire among Mid and West Wales Fire Authority- the body which sets the budget and scrutinises the fire service – to address priority areas such as a decline in retained firefighters are behind the inflation-busting hike.
Residents of Swansea, Carmarthenshire, Neath Port Talbot, Powys, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire fund the fire service through council tax – and the increase could have been even higher for 2023-24 because the Welsh Government withdrew a grant for the fire service’s radio system, called Firelink.
But that grant, worth nearly £600,000, will now be funded from the fire service’s reserves.
The fire authority had debated the proposed budget increase in previous meetings before confirming it on February 6. Authority member, Cllr John Davies, said it had been a difficult process but that he and his colleagues had a duty of care for the safety of all those they represented.
He described the 13% rise as “significant”, but that it was similar to council budget increases when you considered budget settlements for both organisations over the past five years.
The fire authority had considered options for a 9%, 11% or 13% hike at a previous meeting, and recommended 13%. The service’s chief fire officer, Roger Thomas, said 13% would help stem the drop in retained firefighters, among other benefits.
The £63,257,200 budget was approved by 19 fire authority members, with one abstaining as he had joined the meeting late and one – Cllr Lyndon Jones – voting against.
Cllr Jones said there had been “almost a perfect storm” in terms of rising costs, but that a 13% increase “amounts to a huge sum of money”. He said an audit of the fire service’s assets might identify land by fire stations which could potentially be sold to raise money.
Much of the budget debate was around how the Firelink grant would be funded in future years, as paying for it out of reserves beyond 2023-24 was not considered sustainable. Mr Thomas described the withdrawal of the grant as disappointing.
Authority members also asked if a £1.8m fire service pension grant which councils would have to fund in 2023-24 would not add to the 13% increase. They were told that technically it would, but that the Welsh Government was providing the six member councils with extra funding, meaning that the pension grant was cost-neutral.
Fire service support staff have an agreed an average pay of rise of 6.6% for the current financial year, but operational firefighters haven’t agreed one. Last week the Fire Brigades Union said more than 80% of its members who voted backed strike action.
The report before the fire authority said trainee firefighters earned £24,191, as of July 2021, and that qualified ones earned £32,244. The chief fire officer’s salary was £161,265. The fire service’s budget increase in 2022-23 was 3.95%.
The meeting was also told that a Mid and West Wales Fire Service search and rescue team was on standby to be deployed to Turkey or Syria, where many people have been killed by two earthquakes in quick succession.