Chief fire officers have warned that further budget cuts pose a risk to community safety as official figures revealed the biggest increase in fire deaths for a decade.
Their warning comes as MPs vote on Tuesday on a Labour move to block the takeover of the fire service by police and crime commissioners, who face election next month.
The latest figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government show that 294 people died in fires in England during 2015, an increase of 21% compared with the 242 deaths recorded in 2014 and the largest increase since figures were published in 2001-02.
The rise comes after a decade in which the long-term trend in the death toll from fires fell, from a peak of 469 in 2003.
The chief fire officers from the six largest English cities outside London said the rise was worrying as the fire service faces budget cuts of up to 50% by 2020, from the 2010 benchmark.
“The budget cuts have seen the loss of frontline firefighters, response times getting longer, stations closing and fire prevention measures reduced too,” said a statement from the Association of Metropolitan Fire and Rescue Authorities who cover Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield and Leeds.
On Tuesday, Home Office ministers will use the policing and crime bill to legislate for police and crime commissioners to manage local fire and rescue services, despite unease within Conservative ranks.
The shadow home secretary, Andy Burnham, said Labour would force a vote on the fire service takeover: “Emergency services cannot keep communities safe if ministers keep cutting the police and the fire service too. These figures show that the government’s cuts have already gone too far. Labour will stand up for public safety – it is no time to be throwing fire in with the police,” said Burnham.
“David Cameron cannot ignore this warning from senior fire chiefs.”
Labour will call for the government to commit to a statutory independent fire and rescue service with added responsibility for flooding, Burnham said.
West Midlands fire service has said it faces a 46% cut in its budget from £119m in 2010-11 to £94m in 2019-20; Greater Manchester’s budget is set to fall 43% from £117m to £96m over the same period while West Yorkshire’s will drop 41% from £93m to £78m.
The policing and crime bill will place a duty on police, fire and ambulance services to work together and enable police and crime commissioners to take on responsibility for fire and rescue services where a local case has been made.
Home Office ministers have denied that the measure will amount to a police takeover of the fire and rescue services, arguing that the important operational distinction between the two services will be maintained. Full-time police officers will not be used as firefighters and firefighters will not be given core police powers such as the power of arrest or stop and search.
The police and fire minister, Mike Penning, has told MPs that decisions on whether police and crime commissioners take control of fire authorities will be the result of a local negotiation, though the home secretary can intervene if no local agreement is reached.