By New Worker Correspondent
HUNDREDS of people marched through the centre of Brixton, south London, to Lambeth Town Hall last Thursday evening (16th May) to protest at plans to close Clapham Fire Station.
And in the following public consultation meeting in the Town Hall the audience insisted on a vote that could be minuted and, in defiance of the platform, took a vote that showed the audience was unanimously opposed to the cuts.
The march was led by the Fire Brigade Union’s own fire engine, bearing the slogan: “Workers of the world unite”.
Many trade unions and the local trades council were represented, as well as Lambeth Pensioners’ Association and other local community and political groups.
And when they arrived at the Town Hall they packed in to the public hall for a consultation meeting organised by the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) – one of a series of consultation meetings being held in every London borough to inform the public about the plan to close 12 London fire stations and make other cuts.
This plan was initiated by London Mayor Boris Johnson and rejected by the elected committee of the LFEPA on two occasions, with Liberal Democrat councillors voting with Labour and the Green Party against the Tories.
Nevertheless Johnson said he would ignore these votes and proceed with the plan, subject to the public consultation process.
But the people of the London Borough of Lambeth are well aware that such consultation processes are usually a sham and they were determined in this case that they would make it absolutely clear to all and sundry that they were unanimously against the plan.
The meeting began with London Fire Brigade Commissioner Ron Dobson, who tried to present the case for the cuts, arguing that over recent decades the numbers of fires and fire deaths in London has fallen.
He claimed that the closure of Clapham Fire Station would make only 30 seconds difference to the target time for the average time taken for the first fire engine to arrive at the fire after a call-out.
But the audience was having none of it. Well briefed by the FBU, they challenged all his claims. Their figures showed fire deaths in London have increased from 39 in 2008/9 to an expected 56 in 2013/14.
And average arrival times of first engines after a call-out will rise from 3.56 minutes to 7.53 minutes. And average means that many arrivals will take a good bit longer than that, especially when there is traffic congestion.
It was firefighters from Clapham Station who were first on the scene earlier this year when, in fog, a helicopter crashed into a crane on a construction site on the Thames bank, scattering burning debris and iron girders over the busy Wandsworth Road during the morning rush hour. A slower response time would have left many lives in danger in the confusion.
And in the case of serious fires or fires in tower blocks more than one fire engine is needed and hazardous rescue operations cannot begin until back-up engines have arrived.
Members of the audience asked whether equality impact assessments had been made – Lambeth is ethnically a very diverse borough but with many seriously deprived households. And poor households are statistically much more at risk of fire.
The platform referred them to long documents available from LFEPA offices. But before the meeting ended one Unison officer in the audience had used his smartphone to access the documents and challenge the platform on the inadequacies of the assessment.
And when the chair of the meeting told them it had been organised to inform the public about the planned cuts and to allow them to air opinions but not to register those opinions – he said there was as questionnaire for them to take away and fill in for that – the audience expressed doubt that the questionnaires would be noted and insisted on a vote there and then.
Ignoring the imprecations of the chair, a young woman walked to the front of the room asking all those who supported the cuts to raise their hands. No hand came up. Then she asked those opposed to the cuts to raise their hands and every hand in the room – including a couple on the platform – came up. It was unanimous.
And it was minuted and noted by the local press.