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Spelthorne: 'Why we need socialist councillors'
Paul Couchman, Staines Socialist Party
Almost every available Spelthorne firefighter and several from across Surrey joined Fire Brigade Union (FBU) reps, other trade unionists and anti-cuts activists outside Spelthorne Borough Council (SBC) on the evening of 23 February in Staines.
They were at a lobby organised by Save Our Services in Surrey (SOSIS), calling for a commitment from SBC to stand up against Surrey County Council and defend the current fire service provision of two whole-time, fully crewed fire appliances in the borough.
The lobby was part of an ongoing campaign by SOSIS which has seen large public meetings, a demonstration of 200 at Staines fire station, a growing petition and a lively day of action in Staines High Street on 18th February. Our campaigning had already led to a U-turn over the planned immediate closure of Staines fire station.
Until yesterday, we had the support of the firefighters, the FBU, Labour Party, Greens, Lib Dems and Socialist Party, in a united call for no cuts in fire service provision.
This sadly appeared to change at the council meeting last night. Cries of "Shame!" and "Betrayal!" were shouted from the packed public gallery and firefighters walked out in disgust - not because of the Tories but due to the turnaround by the Lib Dem and Labour councillors.
Labour councillor Susan Doran had a motion on the agenda, due to be seconded by Lib Dem Ian Beardsmore. This motion would, if passed, clearly commit Spelthorne to a no-cuts position in terms of the fire service - a position unanimously agreed by campaigners. Doran even stopped to speak to the protesters on her way in to the meeting, asking us all to stay for the meeting and to 'back me up'. Neither Doran or Beardsmore nor any other councillors actually attended the lobby.
Defections to Ukip
The council meeting got off to a bizarre start. Apart from the ceremonial pomp, the singing of the national anthem and prayers, a handful of Tory councillors used the 'minutes' section of the agenda to announce they were leaving the Tory Party and joining Ukip! Allegations of bullying and intimidation by the ruling Tory group flew around the chamber and the animosity between the defectors and their ex-colleagues was palpable. It was like a nest of vipers, biting at each other.
Then came the important motion - what the vast majority of the packed public gallery had come to hear. Councillor Doran moved the motion. The Tories had a prepared amendment which took out the specific call for both fire appliances to be fully staffed - effectively neutering the motion. Doran and Beardsmore were asked if they would accept this and ... they agreed!
This was nothing less than an abject betrayal of the firefighters and the people of Spelthorne who had put their trust in these individuals to lead the charge against the cuts. In the end it was left to the new Ukip group in typical opportunist fashion to oppose the amendment and vote against the eventual motion because they were opposed to any cuts!
With friends like these who needs enemies? The people of Spelthorne deserve more than being treated as the poor relations of Surrey.
This fiasco shows how important it is to elect principled socialist and trade unionist councillors who will stand firm against the cuts. Many were saying, after the meeting, that SOSIS should stand anti-cuts candidates itself. This is something that may have to be considered.
We have the County Council elections in May. It would be good if we have one or two TUSC (Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition) candidates in Spelthorne.
And we need to build the Socialist Party in Staines and Surrey to make sure there are worthy working class leaders willing and able to defend public services, combat racism and discrimination and support workers in struggle. We can also plan ahead for the next Spelthorne elections in order to give Spelthorne residents a real anti-austerity, socialist choice at the ballot box.
Press release from the local Fire Brigades Union:
Council agrees to maintain two fire engines in Spelthorne
At the Spelthorne Borough Council Meeting on 23rd February, a motion calling for maintaining two fire engines in the borough if the plans to build a new fire station go ahead, was agreed.
This was an improvement on the Surrey County Council decision taken in 2014 to replace the two existing 24/7 Whole-time crewed fire engines at Staines and Sunbury, with one Whole-time and one On Call in a proposed new fire station at Fordingbridge. SCC made its 2014 decision in total disregard to the responses it received to its own Public Consultation, to which 92% of the responses demanded no reduction in fire and emergency service provision within the borough.
Importantly, the provision of the On Call fire engine was subject to the viability of recruiting sufficient On Call firefighters which has since proved unachievable without extending emergency response times by approximately 12 minutes. Hence, the second fire engine option has since been dropped.
So the agreed Spelthorne Borough Council positon was a step forward as it gave no option to cut the second fire engine under any circumstances.
The original motion was proposed by the Lib Dems to Spelthorne Borough Council but it was extremely disappointing to then witness the Lib Dems and Labour councillors accept an amendment from the Tories which removed the requirement in the original motion for both fire engines to be crewed 24/7 with immediately available Whole-time crews, which was a U-turn on their position they told the campaigners they were supporting outside the council chambers immediately prior to the meeting taking place.
"Party political bun fighting is certainly not a recognised, robust or risk based approach to community safety or to secure emergency fire and rescue service provision."
The final decision will now be made by Surrey County Council in March where we hope to see councillors do right by their communities, rather than capitulating to the Tory cuts driven majority.
The FBU urges residents to consider prior to the elections in May if they want councillors who will stand up for their communities rather than ones that lack the strength of character to stand their ground in council chambers.
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 24 February 2017 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.