West Kirby fire station will be phased out of operational use by the end of 2016 – leaving in its wake a potential emergency cover crisis.
A bitter row has broken out about a proposal to merge it with Upton fire station on a new site half way between – and the safety concerns of the 26,000 residents of West Kirby and Hoylake are in danger of being drowned out in the political battle.
The fire station on West Kirby Concourse has not been manned round the clock for many months now, and cover will gradually reduce from 70% to zero this year as it falls victim to devastating budget cuts.
When it is not manned, a fire engine has to be despatched from Upton to respond to 999 calls, a journey which can take more than ten minutes to some parts of West Kirby and Hoylake.
The average response time achieved by Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service across the county is 5 minutes 24 seconds. Response times, both to fires and road traffic collisions, can literally be a matter of life and death.
Merseyside Chief Fire Officer Dan Stephens told West Kirby Today: “Response times have an impact on survivability. I can give numerous examples of incidents where response times have had a significant impact on the outcome.”
The fire and rescue authority has been struggling to maintain its service in the face of progressive budget cuts for several years now. In 2015/16 the service has had to make savings of £6.3m from its budget.
Half of that is coming from support services, but just over £3m has had to be saved by losing four front line fire engine crews, with the result that four fire stations have to close, including West Kirby.
The plan adopted elsewhere has been to build one new fire station half way between two existing stations, so that no one area is too badly affected.
Here though, the original plan to build a new fire station on the site of Greasby library was dropped after Wirral Council withdrew the offer of the site following heated local protests.
Now a controversy is raging over plans to build the new fire station on a patch of council-owned waste land on Saughall Massie Road, on the outskirts of Saughall Massie village.
The site would encroach on green belt land, and villagers argue that it would damage the character of the village, harm wildlife, and create a nuisance, a potential flooding problem, and a traffic hazard. Their concerns reached fever pitch at an angry public consultation meeting last year, filmed by the hard-working Wirral political blogger John Brace.
Saughall Massie Cllr Chris Blakeley told West Kirby Today: “It’s an absolute nonsense to want to build this fire station on Green Belt land. There is another site available, 600 metres away near the Upton by-pass which is council-owned and not Green Belt, which was the original second choice, but Dan Stephens doesn’t seem to be interested in that.
“He just seems to be interested in desecrating our Green Belt under the auspices of providing the people of West Wirral with a shiny new fire station. Firefighters tell me that West Kirby has been, to all intents and purposes, closed for months, so why is he so concerned about the response time from Upton now when he hasn’t been for all this time?”
The fire and rescue authority says it would have liked to build the new fire station at another location on Saughall Massie Road closer to West Kirby and Hoylake, near the Three Lanes End roundabout.
But the land involved is also Green Belt, and is privately owned. The landowner has not responded to approaches from the authority to buy the land, and has no compulsory purchase powers.
Mr Stephens says the site near the by-pass referred to by Cllr Blakeley was ruled out because it was too close to the existing Upton fire station, and would take 54 seconds longer to reach West Kirby and Hoylake than the site he is proposing.
In order to build on the proposed council-owned Green Belt site, the authority will have to establish “very special circumstances”. The fact that there is a life-or-death need for the fire station would appear to tick that box, and indeed there are precedents in Cheshire, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Durham and Darlington.
The fire and rescue service says the average run time from this site to West Kirby and Hoylake would be 6 minutes 38 seconds.
But when the authority submits its planning application shortly, there is no doubt that the Saughall Massie community will fight it vociferously.
As things stand, if the application fails, the only alternative appears to be for Upton to become the fire station to serve West Kirby and Hoylake on a permanent basis. The fire and rescue service says that will mean run times to the area now covered by West Kirby station of between nine and twelve minutes.
Said Mr Stephens: “In my judgement, that is simply too long. And it isn’t just an issue for the people who actually live in West Kirby and Hoylake. Anyone could be caught up in a road traffic collision or other emergency in the area and need us to come to their aid.”
West Kirby and Thurstaston councillor Jeff Green, who chairs the West Wirral Constituency Committee, says he wants the fire and rescue authority to provide the minimum response times possible for our area without having to despoil Green Belt land. “Seconds matter in emergency situations,” added Cllr Green, whose own father was a volunteer fire engine driver at Hoylake fire station.
“I’m sure with good will on all sides the best possible result can be achieved in terms of the fastest possible response time coupled with a new purpose-built, up-to-date fire station.”