The disaster at Grenfell Tower shone light on the savage cuts to London Fire Brigade. And the man responsible now sits at the top of the Tory government.
During Tory Boris Johnson’s time as London mayor more than £100 million was slashed from London Fire Brigade’s budget. The London Fire Brigade was reduced by over 550 jobs.
Dave Shek is North West London area secretary for the firefighters’ FBU union. “In Kensington and Chelsea they’ve cut half the fire cover,” he told Socialist Worker.
“There used to be eight fire engines, now there’s four. They’ve shut ten stations and scrapped 27 fire engines.”
Dave, like most people in London, opposed the cuts in a public consultation. The cuts went through anyway.
“When the vote went through, Tories on the fire authority cheered and banged on the table,” he said.
As London mayor last year, Johnson insisted on removing three west London fire engines. His Greater London Assembly (GLA) told the fire authority to “save” £3.6 million between April last year and March this year.
The authority had two plans to choose from. “Option A” involved “alternate crewing”. This is jargon for reducing the crew on shift at certain stations so that only one engine can be used at a time.
But “option B”—Johnson’s favourite plan—involved scrapping 13 engines across the capital, including the three in west London.
These had already been snatched away by bosses to be used by scabs in case of strikes.
There was a lengthy process of meetings and a public consultation. A “substantial majority” of the nearly 1,500 ordinary people who responded wanted to keep the fire engines and return them to the stations.
But when the authority voted for option A, Johnson ordered the authority to choose option B. Defying it would mean breaking the law.
Johnson said his decision was based on “financial prudence”. In other words, austerity was more important than people’s safety.
It was all part of a bigger agenda. Since 2010, the Tories have slashed fire brigades’ budgets by about 30 percent across Britain. More than 10,000 firefighters jobs have been axed.
Despite the cuts, the first fire crews arrived at Grenfell Tower within six minutes of the first emergency call. That’s the target response time.
But a Lancaster University review found that, where London fire stations have closed, the fire brigade failed to meet the target half of the time.
The average stood at seven minutes and 45 seconds in 2014-15—the worst response time in 20 years.
One firefighter explained to Socialist Worker, “The cuts mean that people are less safe. We’re short-handed.
“We used to ride with five people on an engine. Now it’s four, and I’ve heard some brigades have been looking at three.”
That means when a crew arrives at a scene they need backup before they can enter a building.
Dave said, “Fire deaths have gone up. It’s not rocket science—if you take stuff away, you can’t provide the same service. There isn’t the same capability to deal with a major incident.”
And worryingly more cuts are coming. In London, Labour mayor Sadiq Khan’s recent review said the fire brigade should not be cut further. But it said there are still £23.5 million cuts from Johnson’s time to come over the next three years.
The review said the fire brigade will have to look at the budget “ambitiously and innovatively” to avoid frontline cuts.
The real answer is to stop cutting altogether. No more working class lives can be put at risk. As one firefighter put it, “When the fire service is cut, poor people suffer.”