FIREFIGHTERS battling for a 40 per cent pay increase are fuming after their chief was bought a new Jaguar car.

The County Durham and Darlington Fire Authority is believed to have paid more than £30,000 for a dark blue S-type model for chief fire officer George Herbert, replacing a W-reg Audi.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which says it is fighting for a fair wage for a dangerous job, had postponed the start of a series of planned strikes for talks.

But the prospect of the first national strike in 25 years dramatically increased last night after a fourth day of talks ended with union leaders still waiting to be given an improved pay offer.

The FBU said the peace process had now "stalled" and warned that time was running out to halt a 48-hour walk-out from next Wednesday evening.

Negotiations with local authority employers were adjourned to next Tuesday, just one day before the strike is due to begin at fire stations across the UK.

FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist said he was disappointed that the union had to wait until next week before being given a pay offer.

Employers said they did not believe the talks had stalled and remained hopeful of reaching a deal.

But union sources said that strikes were now more likely because of the lack of progress on pay.

Meanwhile, union officials said the decision to splash out on a new Jag for Durham's fire chief was bad timing.

But the fire authority chairman, Durham county councillor Gordon Tennant, defended the move, saying: "He needs it. He has every right to have it."

An FBU spokesman said: "The elected members of the authority don't think our members deserve a fair pay rise but they can get George Herbert a new car.

"Personally I think it's a little bit distasteful and cynical. They could have timed it better.

"It's a perk of the job but unfortunately firemen don't get perks, or overtime payments or payments for working weekends."

John Shuttleworth, Independent Durham county councillor for Weardale, said: "It is very insensitive.

"There is supposed to be a shortage of money but the authority can buy the chief a new car. It's a Jaguar and it won't come cheap."

Coun Tennant said: "It is the normal thing that happens. He has the same grade of car as he had before."