A SHAKE-up at a North-East fire and rescue service paves the way for private firms to gobble up every brigade in England, it was claimed today (Friday, February 8).

The alarm was raised over plans to convert Cleveland Fire Brigade into a public service mutual (PSM), spinning it off from the fire authority.

Those concerns were first raised last year - by Labour MPs across Teesside - as “a step towards privatisation”, as the Brigade makes cuts of at least £3m, over three years.

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The MPs are concerned that the Fire Authority will assume a “commissioning role”, pitching the Brigade into head-to-head battles with private firms for service contracts.

Now a local government minister has called for the idea to be expanded to “enable fire and rescue authorities in England to contract out their full range of services to a suitable provider”.

In a letter to the Regulatory Reform committee - which looks at planned legislation - Brandon Lewis wrote: “I appreciate that the proposals are not without controversy.

“However, these changes will help remove barriers and to increase choices that fire and rescue authorities have to contract out their services.

“Fire and Rescue authorities should be able to adopt alternative models for the delivery, under contract, for some or all of their services.”

Tom Blenkinsop, the Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland MP, said Semcorp was already in a prime position to win contracts and undermine the public “mutual”.

The company already provides fire services to major industries on Teesside, including the petro-chemicals complex and the SSI steel plant.

Mr Blenkinsop said: “I’m very worried that this is a government plan to privatise the fire service down the line and that they are using the public mutual to do that.

“If Cleveland Fire Brigade is going to have to compete with private sector companies for contracts then that will undermine the service, which is not in the interests of local people.

“It is particularly worrying because we have a nuclear power station, the largest blast furnace in Western Europe, the petro-chemicals complex and the port.”

There are also fears that England’s 28,245 firefighters could end up with weaker pension and employment rights, should the changes go through.

The Northern Echo attempted to ask Robbie Payne, the chairman of Cleveland Fire Authority, about the plans, but its calls were not returned.

However, last year, Ian Hayton, the Brigade’s chief fire officer, denied any plan to privatise, saying: “Funding is vanishing and our options are stark.

“Do we cut services and slash jobs to the tune of £3m, or think more creatively about how to protect our communities and service?”

A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said: “We are keen to work with local authorities and staff to explore the scope for employee-led mutuals where there is local support and backing.”