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Tories ‘have put the smoke alarm on snooze’ as Britain faces wildfire risk

A large wildfire in woodland at Lickey Hills Country Park on the edge of Birmingham (Jacob King/PA)
A large wildfire in woodland at Lickey Hills Country Park on the edge of Birmingham (Jacob King/PA)

Labour has accused the Tories of putting “the smoke alarm on snooze” as wildfires break out across the country.

The party claimed the Government has been “asleep at the wheel” in response to the extreme heat, with resilience planning “nothing short of woeful”.

It comes as the Met Office’s fire severity index (FSI), an assessment of how serious a blaze could become if one were to start, will reach “exceptional” – the highest level – for a swathe of England stretching to the border with Wales by the weekend.

Labour pointed out that the Government has not yet published its national resilience strategy, set to cover “environmental hazards” including heatwaves, despite a consultation to shape the plan closing some 10 months ago.

It has set out its own proposals for a “more resilient Britain”, including a “whole-system approach” to preparing for national emergencies.

People watch a large wildfire that broke out in woodland at Lickey Hills Country Park on the edge of Birmingham (Jacob King/PA)

This would involve creating a new Cabinet sub-committee on national resilience, Labour said.

The party would also conduct an urgent review of the UK’s emergency Cobra committee, and appoint a minister for resilience within the Cabinet Office to coordinate department-wide responses.

Separately, Labour would “overhaul” local resilience forums, introducing “clear accountability”, new training standards for officials, and formal inspections.

And it would implement a “whole-of-society approach to resilience”, bringing on board businesses and volunteer groups for national planning.

Fleur Anderson, Labour’s shadow paymaster general, said the Tories have showed “they can’t be trusted with civil contingencies”.

“This Conservative government’s abject failure to adequately prepare for wildfires is a dereliction of duty that is putting lives at risk,” she said.

“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.”

Riccardo la Torre, national officer of the Fire Brigades Union, said firefighters are making “phenomenal” efforts to deal with the outbreak of summer blazes.

He told the PA news agency: “We have been warning for years about the impact of cutting jobs and taking fire engines out of service, but it has fallen on deaf ears as far as the Government and chief fire officers are concerned.

“They have chosen to press ahead with their obsession on cutting jobs. There are 11,500 fewer firefighters than in 2010. Even if we had the same numbers now, it is an almost impossible task to keep up with all the fires. Conditions are absolutely brutal.

“On the hottest days in London there are fire engines standing idle because there are not enough firefighters to crew them.”

In the capital, where record-breaking heat in July prompted a number of devastating blazes, fire chiefs are urging people not to barbecue in open spaces or balconies, to put out their cigarettes properly and dispose of rubbish correctly.

London Fire Brigade said its control room had sent firefighters to deal with 340 grass, rubbish and open land fires during the first week of August – an eightfold increase on the 42 during the same week last year.

Ms Anderson accused Tory ministers of putting “the smoke alarm on snooze for far too long”, adding: “This is an urgent wake-up call.”

“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,” she said.

“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.”

A Government spokesperson said: “The Government is committed to ensuring fire services have the resources they need to keep us safe, including from wildfires, and, overall, fire and rescue authorities will receive around £2.5 billion in 2022/23.

“Lessons from the July heatwave are being implemented at pace and we are conducting daily risk assessments with the key agencies involved to ensure we’re fully prepared for extreme weather.

“We will set out our approach for the country’s resilience to 2030 and make sure we continue to be prepared to meet all future challenges.”