“We have lower bills than parish councils”, say fire chiefs in Milton Keynes and Buckinghamshire agitating for more cash

Fire service HQ in Aylesbury
Fire service HQ in Aylesbury

Fire chiefs are agitating for the power to demand more money from ratepayers amid discontent that they are the poor relations even of parish councils.

Parish councils are the lowest tier of the local authority set up, with unlimited powers to raise bills through their precepts on the council tax, a fact that irks some members of the Buckinghamshire & Milton Keynes Fire Authority.

In 2019-20, the fire authority charged the band D council tax £64.57, compared to £215 in Woughton, and even £67.52 in sleepy Castlethorpe village.

“We can only raise our council tax by two per cent,” said Mark Hemming, the authority’s director of finance and assets. “It is lower than many parish councils and they can raise it to whatever they want.

“There is a huge difference between different precepting bodies.”

Milton Keynes Lib Dem leader Cllr Douglas McCall (Newport Pagnell South) said that this limit meant the gap between rich and poor fire services gets bigger every year.

The Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes fire service has a total budget from the council tax of £19.7 million and chiefs say they are feeling the strain. They could ask the public in a referendum if they are willing to have an increase of more than 1.99 per cent. But this itself would cost money with no guarantee of the result they want.

So while preparing to take their increase to the maximum with a 1.99 per cent increase from next April, the service is also lobbying for a flat rate £5 increase, which would give it a total budget of £21.3million.

Cllr McCall said a flat rate £5 extra from each Band D property would be more helpful than a percentage increase. “A 1.99 per cent increase would be a small increase on a small cake.”

And Mr Hemming, speaking at the authority’s executive meeting in Aylesbury on Wednesday, agreed: “If we moved to a £5 increase for all fire services it would be equal for everyone.”

The authority is lobbying for the government to make that happen.

Jason Thelwell, the chief fire officer, said he expected a fire inspector’s report, due to be published in late December. “It would not surprise me if it did talk about how stretched the service is and how well staff have done in stepping up.”

But he said that this would be “difficult to sustain” unless there was fair funding. He is lobbying national firefighter bodies to take a united position with the government.

Fire authority chairman Cllr Lesley Clarke OBE (Cons, Abbey ward in High Wycombe) said: “It might be an idea if we could become a precepting authority.

“We have had a lot of support from our MPs and will go forward.”

Fire authority members noted the report.