I've been away for a couple of days, attending the Local Government Association Fire Confernce in Manchester.
To be honest, I rarely go to conferences these days - justifying the time away in a very hectic schedule is difficult, but more pertinently, I'm not convinced that many represent good value for money. In the current economic climate, I certainly couldn't agree to anything resembling a "junket" stay.
I attended the LGA Fire Conference last year as a delegate from the Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Authority, and learnt more in a few hours than I had done from months worth of agenda and policy papers back home. I was pleased to be asked to go again, and found this conference equally informative.
The burning issue (ahem) which dominated the discussion was the delayed FiReControl scheme, under which local control rooms are being merged into regional centres country-wide. As is often the case in the public and private sectors, however, software problems have dogged the process, leading to delays. Listening to the pompous, garrulous Tories who increasingly dominate local government at all levels these days, however, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a uniquely scandalous state of affairs.
Refreshingly, the civil servant who came to respond to the criticism dealt with it in the only way possible (if he was going to escape without being lynched) - he was brutally honest, whilst challenging some of the Tories more outragous claims. It was a master class in political acumen, prompting the Chair of one Fire Authority, tongue ever-so-slightly-in-cheek, to offer him a position if he ever decided to cross the floor into politics.
One exchange which stuck in my mind, however, took place in the Q&A session following the speech to conference by the Shadow Fire Minister Stewart Jackson, MP. During his (incredibly lightweight) speech, Mr Jackson had taken a gratuitous swipe at Harriet Harman's Equalities Bill. In a passage that would have made a Daily Mail sub-editor swell with pride, Mr Jackson railed against Labour's "class warfare" pledging that middle class areas should not have to suffer to provide additional resources for poorer communities.
An opposing point was made, courteously but directly, by the Chief (not a politician, mind) of a Fire and Rescue Authority. If we know, he said, that someone from the poorest section of society is 14 times more likely to die as a result from fire than a more affluent person, are we not justified in targetting our spending in preventing fire deaths where they are most likely to occur?
The dismissive reply he received - platitudes about education but nothing more- made it very clear that the Shadow Minister's priorities lay with his voter base in Middle England rather than the most vulnerable in society. It was a chilling reminder, just weeks away from a General Election, that the Tories - the self-styled Nasty Party - haven't changed one bit..