RIP Halling Fire Station 1905 – 2012

 

At 12:52 and 26 seconds on Wednesday 15th February, Halling Fire Station died. That was when 20 members of the Kent and Medway Towns fire Authority raised their hands to vote to close it, with just 2 voting against.

I should explain that i write this article, not as your editor but as vice-chairman of the Parish Council. I had the privilege and honour to lead our campaign to keep Halling open, in view of our Chairman, A conflict of interests being a firefighter based at Halling. I am deeply sorry that our efforts failed.

I will begin by explaining a little about how the fire service is administered in Kent and go on to describe the events at the meeting that sealed Halling Fire Station’s fate. I should also explain that, because appointments to the Fire Authority are made on a political basis, there will be political references made in this article. However, they will be strictly factual and unbiased, because Halling Parish council is passionately non political on the basis that party politics has no relevance in running parish council affairs. The day that changes will be the day the chairman receives my resignation.

The Kent and Medway Towns Fire Authority is not the same as the Kent Fire and Rescue Service. The Fire and Rescue Service comprises all the staff, headed by the Chief Executive and they are the people, including the firefighters, who provide the day to day fire service for us. The Fire Service reports to the Fire Authority, which is made up of 25 elected councillors from Kent County Council (21) and Medway Council (4). This Fire Authority takes all strategic and policy decisions, like the one to close Halling, after receiving reports and recommendations from the Fire Service (hope you’re keeping up with this!).

All but one of the 25 members of the Fire Authority is male and the 21/4 split between KCC and Medway Council presumably represents Medway’s proportional call on the fire service. In Halling of course, we receive no services at all from Kent County Council, they are provided entirely by Medway Council.

The current political composition of the Fire Authority is: Conservatives (Councillors Adrian Gulvin, Vaughan Hewett and Tom Mason) and 1 Labour (Councillor Paul Harriott). Councillor Mason is currently Vice-Chairman of the Fire Authority.

So, to the meeting, which opened with a lengthy presentation by Chief Executive Ann Millington and one of her senior colleagues, explaining the consultation process and giving details of the feedback received, including the nearly 1900 strong petition from Halling. The review was described as probably the most important and thorough examination in the history of Kent fire Service and had taken 3 years to complete. The members were than invited to debate the proposal to close 8 fire stations across Kent including Halling.

The debate was opened by Medway Councillor Tom Mason who congratulated the Chief Executive and her staff on the quality of the review. He ended by proposing that the recommendations for closure be approved. The motion was seconded by county Councillor Keith Ferrin.

The next few speakers also heaped huge praise for Ms Millington and her review in a quite remarkable display of narcissism. The self congratulation was halted to a certain extent by the contribution of Councillor Leslie Christie, Leader of the Labour Group (if 2 constitutes a group!). That was to express surprise that, following the public meetings, and all feedback received from Parish and Town Councils and the public, not a single word or recommendation set out on the original document had been amended.

My words now, it is indeed amazing that an organisation can take 3 years to undertake the most important review in its history and get it spot on first time, to the extent that no one else was considered to have anything useful at all to contribute. Amazing or delusory, you decide. Councillor Christie went on to say that, while it was right to compliment the officers on their report, it was also the role of members to probe and question its recommendations.

Back to the meeting shortly, but, contrary to the praise given at the meeting, let me tell you about some flaws and misleading statements in the report. Details of these were sent by us individually to each member of the Fire Authority before the meeting and apparently were ignored.

The report mentioned a “drop in” session for the public at Halling Fire Station on the 7th November, which had been attended “by a very view people”. There may have been more if it had been advertised it in the Medway edition of the Kent Messenger rather than the Thanet one! They also referred to “a meeting held in Halling on 8th November”, omitting to mention that it was a public meeting attended by over 200 people!

The report also, and astonishingly conceded that the Fire Service had not known when reaching their origin al conclusions, about the proposed new cement factory at Holborough and the new road bridge which will connect the A228 to Wouldham. Never mind, 7000 or so extra people and a new factory, all impacting on the A228 wasn’t going to deflect them from their determination to close Halling, regardless of the shortcomings of the database. The report gave prominence to the meeting held with Tonbridge and Malling Borough council, which covers Snodland and Wouldham. What it didn’t say was that Snodland and Wouldham were never consulted and Tonbridge and Malling only found out about it when we passed the papers to them!

Back to the meeting then and it is worth reporting here that, despite this being described as such an important issue, only about a third of the 23 member’s present spoke during the debate. Councillor Christie, seconded by councillor Harriott proposed two separate amendments to the motion to close the fire stations, that the Fire Stations at St. Margarets near Dover and Halling “remain open for at least a further year”. In speaking about Halling, Councillor Christie referred to our concerns about potential delays to emergency vehicles accessing the Halling area given the extra pressures on the A228. He also pointed out that we were asking for a decision to be delayed and not abandoned altogether.

Both amendments were lost by 20 votes to 2 (2 members were absent and the Chairman did not vote). The original motion to close Halling was put to the meeting when the amendment failed and was approved, with 20 voting in favour and 2 voting against. Councillor Christie represents Gravesham, so 3 of the 4 Medway Councillors voted to close Halling Fire Station. St. Margarets suffered exactly the same fate. As i said at the beginning, the formal vote was taken at a little after 12:52 when the ordeal to which we had been subjected by this charade of a consultation was finally ended. Before i finish i want to share with you some final thoughts, including the role of Medway Council in this process and what we might deduce about its attitude towards Halling as a result.

The Parish Council wrote to Medway Council three times to ask for their support in opposing the closure of Halling fire Station. Three times the chief Executive responded non committally, saying only that Medway would do its best to ensure adequate fire cover for Halling. Personally, i could have coped with a response setting out reasons why they were unable to support us, but not to have the courage to tell us is unacceptable. We included the Leader of the Council, Councillor Rodney Chambers in our correspondence with chief Executive Neil Davies and we also asked if councillors were going to be given the opportunity to debate this issue democratically in a meeting open to the public, which we could attend. Mr Davies replied that there was no intention to do so.

Of course, all became clear when Medway Councillor Tom Mason proposed the motion that terminated the life of Halling Fire Station. My colleagues who were also present will confirm that, during his proposition and subsequent speech, not once did the word “Halling” pass Councillor Mason’s lips.

Earlier, Councillor Mason had been invited to attend the Medway Area Committee of the Kent Association of local Councils’ meeting held on 26th October 2011 when the issue of review of fire stations was first raised. In giving his reasons for not attending, the minutes state, and i quote, “Cllr Mason had reported that (in Medway) only the fire station at Halling was being proposed for closure”. That’s ok then!

The public meeting on 8th November was attended by Cuxton and Halling’s Medway Councillor Ray Maisey and Mark Reckless MP, who came straight from the House of Commons to be with us. We did invite Medway’s Chief Executive, but Mr Davies replied saying that he and his senior officers were all “too busy” to attend. Disappointing and we would even have sent a map to show him how to find us.

We gave Mr Davies the opportunity to comment on the accuracy of the parts of this referring to Medway Council. He replied stating:-

“In any statements issued in Halling View, i would request that you clearly express the views of Councillor Ray Maisey, as ward councillor and member of Medway Council that strongly opposed the proposed closure”.

I am pleased to do that and i would only make the point that, while Councillor Maisey did attend the public meeting to speak against the closure, he also confirmed subsequently that he had not responded to the consultation with a written objection. According to the Fire Service’s report, the MP had also not objected in writing. You will all no doubt reach your own conclusions as to whether the actions of Medway Council have served the best interests of Halling. 

My main emotion at the end of this journey is sadness for the firefighters like ........ whose family has served us over two generations and of course for Halling which, at 1800 hours on 31st March will lose a service that over the years has become a central and integral part of village life. We should all be proud of our village for the show of support we gave at the public meeting and, if we can draw any comfort at all from the Fire Authority meeting it is that we were of only two stations to receive any votes to remain open. Courteous relations were maintained with the Fire Service, there was no point in doing otherwise, but I am convinced that nothing we could have said or done would have persuaded the Chief Executive to change her recommendation to close Halling.

I have always been a bad loser, but at the end of the day we lost a battle that I believe it was not possible to win and there are several other villages in Kent that no doubt feel much the same way. Only time will tell if the decision to close Halling has compromised our safety, but we do believe that it will result in fire appliances sometimes being delayed in reaching incidents in Halling and surrounding communities on both sides of the river.

Trevor Reynolds.