A FIREFIGHTERS union has slammed the Government for “underfunding” the region’s fire service which impacts its ability to carry out building checks, making reference to the devastating blaze at The Cube in Bolton last year.

The student accommodation site was ravaged in a fire in November 2019.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel visited the town to see the aftermath of the blaze but no financial help has been given to The Cube since.

And now, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has criticised the state after figures revealed thousands fewer safety checks are being done out by Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) than 10 years ago.

Home Office data shows GMFRS completed 1,458 fire safety audits on buildings in 2019-20.

This was 2,213 less than the 3,671 inspections recorded in 2010-11, when comparable records began.

The Bolton News:

The fire at The Cube in Bolton last November

The Bolton News:

The damaged building after the devastating fire. Picture: Phil Taylor

FBU Greater Manchester brigade secretary Steve Wiswell said: “The Grenfell Tower fire should have shocked ministers into action after years of relentless cuts to our fire and rescue service, but these figures show that it did not.

“After our own very close call in Bolton last November, it’s totally unacceptable that the Westminster Government continues to underfund our service.

“It has been necessary to pause some inspection work during the pandemic, but these figures reflect a long-term trend of neglect and complacency around fires and building safety that comes from the very heart of Government.”

Of the audits undertaken in Greater Manchester last year, 652 (45 per cent) resulted in an “unsatisfactory” rating.

Crews issued 589 informal notifications to premises that had failed an audit, explaining what action needed to be taken.

If informal notifications fail, they can take tougher action and Greater Manchester crews handed out 82 enforcement notices – formal warnings that a building breaches the law.

Prohibition notices, ordering access to a building to be restricted or for it to be closed altogether, were issued on 97 occasions.

A GMFRS spokesman said: “The number of audits undertaken by GMFRS has reduced in the period since 2010 and this reflects a reduction in qualified fire safety officers and an overall reduction in GMFRS budgets from central Government during the same period.

“GMFRS is committed to ensuring the safety of Greater Manchester residents and supporting businesses whilst providing an effective regulatory function.

“We are investing in our protection teams and plan to increase the number of officers so that our staffing levels within these specialist roles will be the same as in 2011.

“This investment will take time as the specialist nature of the role requires significant training and 10 new fire safety officers are currently progressing through their initial qualifications with more due to be recruited and commence initial training in the new year.

“Since 2017 GMFRS has committed significant resources to supporting improvements in the safety of high rise buildings and working intensively with housing providers, managing agents and residents.

“This ongoing work through a dedicated team has reduced capacity to undertake audits but has been a priority because as a service we recognise the risk in these buildings as was demonstrated in the fire at The Cube in Bolton and how this impacts on the lives of residents.”

The pandemic has also led to a reduction in the number of safety checks being carried out by the fire service in efforts to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The spokesman said: “We also took the decision to pause inspections of hospitals, care homes and other premises occupied by vulnerable people early in March this year in order to reduce the risk of contributing to the transmission of covid-19 among our most vulnerable residents.

“GMFRS has continued to respond to complaints since March but has adapted alternative ways of working with businesses to promote and support compliance with fire Safety throughout the pandemic.

“Between April and June we provided advice and support to over 500 businesses and in September provided advice on fire safety to all schools in Greater Manchester.”

In response to claims of GMFRS being "underfunded", the Home Office has responded with details of its financial support.

A Home Office spokesman said: “We are committed to providing fire and rescue services with the resources they need to carry out essential work, which is why fire and rescue authorities will receive around £2.3bn in 2020/21.

"In addition to this, Greater Manchester’s Combined Authority received £564,000 in March and £2.1m in May to support their response to the pandemic.

“We’ve also made more than £20m of funding available to the sector to support fire protection work – £16m of which is being invested directly to increase the number of audits and qualified officers.

“Fire and rescue authorities must have in place a risk-based inspection programme to ensure buildings comply with fire safety standards.

"It is for individual fire and rescue authorities to decide what inspections are necessary, based on their assessment of local risk.”