Critical report into West Sussex fire service a ‘hammer blow’ and ‘indicates total failure of leadership’

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Two weeks after surviving calls for her to resign, it looks like the leader of West Sussex County Council will have to face her critics again.

Conservative Louise Goldsmith saw several members of her own party turn against her earlier this month after a disastrous Ofsted report branded the county’s children’s service  inadequate.

Now Her Majesty’s inspectors have published a highly critical report into West Sussex Fire & Rescue – and some county councillors are making Mrs Goldsmith the focus of their criticism.

Dr James Walsh, leader of the opposition and the Liberal Democrat group, said the report indicated ‘a total failure of leadership’.

He added: “Once again, it is time that she seriously considers her position, and takes the decision to step down before she is dumped by her own party.”

Labour’s Michael Jones called the fire and rescue report ‘a hammer blow’ to the council, and suggested that it was not only Mrs Goldsmith who should be held responsible.

He said: “I am not ruling out another vote of no confidence because we just can’t carry on with a council performing like this – but this time it might be directed at the whole cabinet and not only the leader.”

Mr Jones added: “Louise Goldsmith should not need a further vote of no confidence, she should have the decency to stand down without pressure.”

Mrs Goldsmith chose not to answer questions about whether she planned to resign or why she thinks she should still stay on as leader.

Instead she said the public could be assured that ‘we have a fire service that is there for them in an emergency’, adding: “The report highlights the positive financial management of the service and confirmed its spending is in line with other authorities across the country.

“During the last four years, we have invested almost £6m in fire engines and other technical equipment.

“We have invested £1m in a new IT system and, following the report, we have invested £400K to address the immediate concerns that were raised.”

Despite these investments, the HMI report pointed out that the number of fire engines in West Sussex has been cut from 46 to 35, and questioned the long-term financial sustainability of the service.

Dr Walsh added: “She has driven through several changes of top management including chief fire officers and head of service in the last few years, insisted on reducing the number of fire engines on call, and ignored reports of a bullying culture in the service.

“Whilst it is true that most of the financial cuts to the service have been because of the Government’s austerity programme, they have been enthusiastically embraced by the cost cutting approach of the council leader.

“I talk to fire employees on a regular basis, and it has been clear for some time that morale is at an all-time low.

“The public have a right to know that they have adequate fire cover at all times, even in rural areas, and our staff need better looking after with a rapid end to the bullying culture.”

Mr Jones added: “I fear that the fire and rescue service rank and file have already lost confidence in the leadership.  

“If my concerns are founded, that’s the beginning of the end for the county council running the service but if that happens, then I am afraid the Tories only have themselves to blame.”

If a vote of no confidence is called, it will be tabled at the next meeting of the full council, on July 19.