ERIC Pickles pledged yesterday (Tuesday, March 19) to stop a shake-up described as “privatisation” of the fire service – insisting he will never allow firms to answer 999 calls.

Quizzed by The Northern Echo, the Communities Secretary insisted his critics were wrong to believe he wished to end the 75-year tradition of publicly-run fire services.

But, to remove any doubt, he announced he was ready to abandon radical changes – due to start in Cleveland – that might allow private firms to tender, and win, contracts.

That shift, to create a public service mutual (PSM) and allow the fire authority to “commission” services, was due to get underway in Cleveland next year.

But, Mr Pickles said: “Let me be absolutely clear. We will make no move, directly or indirectly, that involves the privatisation of the fire service “It is not our intention, nor will we allow, private firms to run the fire service.

“If that means we cannot move on mutualisation, we will not move on mutualisation - if that means privatisation of the fire service. Have I left any room for manoeuvre?”

The Northern Echo reported, last month, that ministers were trying to revoke long-standing legislation that prevents the creation of privately-run fire brigades.

The Chief Fire Officers Association led criticism of “the first step towards privatisation” – one that would allow profit-making firms to enter premises and answer emergencies.

Starting in Cleveland, the model was to be quickly extended across the whole of England, giving companies the chance to grab contracts from all fire authorities.

Asked if he would end the attempt to repeal clauses in a 2004 Act, Mr Pickles replied: “We are not going to revoke anything it that means the privatisation of the fire service. We will not do it.”

However, he defended the process, saying: “We were asked by Cleveland – a Labour authority - whether or not we could change the law to allow mutuals in the fire service.

“I actually believe in co-operatives and I understand the Labour party believes in co-operatives?”

Indeed, any end to mutualisation may alarm cash-starved Cleveland, which saw the process as a possible way to plug a gaping funding black hole.

Robbie Payne, the Cleveland Fire Authority (CFA) chairman, insisted he did not wish to see a private firm answering 999 calls, but had hinted it might prove necessary.

Last month, pointing to harsh funding cuts, he warned: “We are not ruling anything in or out. If we were properly funded, we would not consider going down this road.”

Last night, Tom Blenkinsop, the Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland MP, said he was sceptical about Mr Pickles’ pledge.

He said: “I’ll believe it when I see it. The government has said similar things about the NHS.”

Later, government sources insisted ministers had been advised that scrapping parts of the 2004 Act was the only way to allow the Cleveland mutual to go ahead.

They would now seek to push forward the mutual in a different way – or, if that proved impossible, abandon the shake-up altogether.