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A Magazine for Sheffield

Burning Issues.

Last month a huge black column of smoke, visible 20 miles from Sheffield, raised far-reaching questions on issues ranging from austerity to recycling. An investigation is currently underway into the fire, which was tackled with the help of resources from Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. It damaged three businesses in Attercliffe's 'Recycling Central' zone. One was M. Whites, skip hire offshoot of the local Aaron White family firm which has turned muck into brass through demolition, from post-war reconstruction to clearing concrete jungles like Kelvin Flats. Another was Reclaim, a long-established educational charity which has people with learning disabilities sorting recyclable plastics and learning life skills. The fire destroyed office, kitchen and toilet areas but they are determined to rebuild with help from volunteer tradesmen and local companies. Flames also threatened neighbouring premises of Veolia, the city's corporate waste disposal contractors. Is this enough to raise suspicions about links between recycling plants and fires? This year alone, the largest fire ever seen in the West Midlands was at a plastics recycling centre, and so was a massive one at Kidderminster. Locally, a Canklow recyling factory, a Doncaster pallet yard and a rubber recycling plant in Attercliffe have burned down. Rotherham has seen a fire at a bio-degradable waste recycling plant, while Barnsley witnessed a large blaze at a recycling company’s premises and another in a big recycling yard. The worry is that the recycling industry, with its need to store flammable materials, is not safety conscious enough. This is not a care shared by South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue spokesperson Steve Chu, who recently said on Sheffield Live's MouthPiece programme following the recent Attercliffe fire that “...on the whole, there's no real issue in terms of the businesses of South Yorkshire.” Queried over toxic fumes, his response was, “We were fairly lucky in that the wind blew the smoke cloud mostly over an industrial area in the near vicinity of the fire, and so that didn't affect local people.” Apparently the Health Protection Agency had no concerns over air quality levels, and the warning for people within a five-mile radius to keep windows closed was merely a sensible precaution. So we have nothing to worry about, unless we live or work in that particular area. Or unless, as some observers suspect, an asbestos roof was blown up in the conflagration. Thanks to fire alarms and fire safety education, home fires don't keep burning, but what about climate change? A government report back in 2006 warned of a “clear and demonstrable link between hot dry summers and the number of fires.” And it's not only fires; there were nearly twice as many floods in 2012 than in 2011, according to the Fire Brigades Union. In this situation, rolling four-year budget cuts of £9.5m have been deeply contentious. Steve Chu admitted to being “extremely concerned about any further cuts we might get in the future”. So he should, perhaps, because his own authority believes that the government's grant allocations hit hardest on metropolitan areas like South Yorkshire. His concern is shared by the Chief Fire Officer Jamie Courtney, who also points out a link with increased fires when economic hardship hits. The authority has experienced controversy in the past over ordering “unsafe” fire engines, and running up huge cost when defence contractor EADS failed to deliver on a new computer contract, labelled by Sheffield MP Clive Betts as an “unmitigated disaster”. Now, just as the austerity-era slimmed-down fire service is receiving praise, and two new fire stations at Birley and Handsworth are on the cards, the Public Service Pensions Act has arrived. This hammer blow imposes a new pension scheme on firefighters, including a 'normal' pension age of 60, so two-thirds of current staff not expected to stay fighting fit until 60 faced being sacked without a pension, for the crime of getting older. There will also be big increases in pension contributions. No surprise this incendiary step was branded by unions as outrageous, unacceptable, unaffordable, unsustainable and unworkable, and a strike ballot was called. Anyone up there need staff motivation classes? As the scorched earth austerity programme fans the flame of a summer of discontent, it's good to know that a fightback is underway. A wide coalition of groups in Sheffield is planning a People’s Assembly Against Austerity in September. Full details will be listed on the Alt-Sheff website and all over social media by then. Let's hope the movement spreads like wildfire and puts the heat on. It's going to be a long summer. )

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