The campaign against fire station closures in London took a further step forward this week after the fire authority again voted against proposed cuts, in defiance of Mayor Boris Johnson’s plans.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) welcomed the decision by the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) to ignore an order by Johnson to begin making savage cuts to the brigade. The mayor wants to close 12 fire stations, remove 18 fire engines and slash 520 frontline firefighter posts in an attempt to save £45 million.
On 21 January the LFEPA board, made up of elected councillors as well as mayoral appointees, voted 9-8 against the mayor’s plans. Despite the democratic decision, Johnson instructed fire chief Ron Dobson to ignore the vote and begin a public consultation exercise on the cuts.
At an emergency meeting of the authority on Monday 11 February called in response to the mayor’s intervention, the commissioner conceded that he did not have the legal power to act on the mayor’s instruction without the approval of the authority. Instead he recommended that the authority delegate the required powers to enable him to consult on the cuts. However the majority of authority members voted not to accept the recommendation, meaning that the mayor’s cuts are again blocked.
Paul Embery, FBU’s regional secretary for London said: “Authority members did the right thing and we applaud their stance. Hostility to the mayor’s planned cuts is growing by the day. It’s about time the mayor grasped the nettle and abandoned his reckless plans.”
The vote puts the spotlight back on Johnson, but he is unlikely to back-off. He wants to trim council tax bills to forward his political ambitions in the Tory party and is not fussy about where cuts are made to fund it. Central government fire grants have also been cut.
This makes it all the more important to organise campaign groups around every threatened fire station, drawing in local people and supporters. This will help organise high-profile stunts and actions, as well as give firefighters more confidence to take action against the cuts. Alongside political campaigning around the GLA, where Labour member Andrew Dismore has made the running against Johnson, there is the possibility of local direct action to force the Tories to back down.
It is necessary to raise the prospect of industrial action to keep fire stations open. Work-ins, occupations and other forms of direct action the keep providing the service but under workers’ control make sense. This means the directly-affected firefighters can shape their own destiny, while local people can participate while still getting their vital service.
However there is a way to go before such activity can be organised successfully. The first steps towards support groups are being taken in some places, but the response so far is uneven. Firefighters need to reach out to the labour movement and to local anti-cuts and NHS campaigns, while activists and socialists need to show solidarity with firefighters.