Ministers putting the “smoke alarm on snooze” over wildfire threat, Labour says

Katie Neame
© Mark Thomas/FBU

Labour’s Fleur Anderson has accused the government of putting the “smoke alarm on snooze” over the threat of wildfires, declaring that the Tories’ failure to prepare for such incidents is a “dereliction of duty that is putting lives at risk”.

The Met Office announced today that it has raised its fire severity index – which assesses how quickly a blaze could spread – to its highest level for much of southern England over the coming weekend.

According to the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), there have been more than 440 wildfires in England and Wales so far this year – up from 247 in 2021. The NFCC said the rise was “in part due to climate factors”.

The shadow paymaster general said: “This Conservative government’s abject failure to adequately prepare for wildfires is a dereliction of duty that is putting lives at risk.

“The threat of wildfires has been recognised on the national risk register for nearly a decade, yet the government’s resilience planning has been nothing short of woeful. Just weeks ago, firefighters were injured and people lost their homes, while frontline workers faced many serious wildfires.

“Conservative ministers have put the smoke alarm on snooze for far too long. This is an urgent wake-up call. The reality of the past decade has been devastating cuts to firefighter numbers and fire appliances, leading inevitably to slower response times.”

A total of 16 fire and rescue services declared major incidents during the heatwave in July, with firefighters responding to wildfires and other blazes as record-high temperatures were recorded in areas of the country.

Commenting at the time, Fire Brigades Union (FBU) general secretary Matt Wrack accused government ministers and chief fire officers of “criminal complacency” over their failure to respond to warnings about the threat of the climate emergency.

FBU assistant general secretary Andy Dark said this week: “Heatwaves have been on the government’s national risk register since its first iteration in 2008. Wildfire as a national risk was added to the register in 2013. Instead of improving fire and rescue services, we’ve had 11,500 firefighters cut since 2010.

“Understaffing has been so bad that, throughout the last period of wildfires, nearly all fire and rescue services in the most severely affected areas had to call up off-duty firefighters and ask them to perform extra shifts. If we are to properly protect life and property from wildfires, the fire service urgently needs huge investment.”

Labour has accused ministers of falling behind on national resilience planning, highlighting that the government’s consultation on a comprehensive resilience strategy closed nearly ten months ago but no plans have yet been published.

The opposition party urged the government to immediately publish the national resilience strategy and has today set out its own plan to increase the UK’s preparedness for future emergencies.

Labour’s proposes to introduce a “whole-system approach” by creating a new cabinet subcommittee on national resilience with formal responsibility for preparedness and resilience policy, as well as conducting an urgent review of COBRA and appointing a minister for resilience within the cabinet office.

Labour would look to overhaul local resilience forums – established by the last Labour government to plan and prepare for emergencies at local levels – by introducing clear accountability, new training standards for officials, formal inspections and a quality assurance standards framework.

Labour would also deliver a “whole-of-society approach” to resilience, which it said would involve bringing businesses and volunteer groups “into the heart of national emergency preparedness”.

Anderson declared: “We need a government that will take serious action on climate change to adapt our infrastructure and prepare a joined-up emergency response to keep people safe against the threats of a warming world.

“The government has failed to explain any clear emergency response plan to protect the public during last month’s heatwave, and they are repeating their own mistakes.

“It’s been almost a year since they closed their national resilience strategy consultation, but we have seen no strategy from them to address the threat of climate change. Labour has a concrete plan to boost Britain’s resilience, while the Tories are showing once again that they can’t be trusted with civil contingencies.”

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