THE chairman of Wiltshire and Swindon Fire Authority has stood down, warning that full-time firefighters in Salisbury could lose their jobs and Wilton’s fire station could be closed.

Graham Payne said he passionately believes the only way to maintain “fully functioning fire cover” is to merge the Wiltshire and Dorset services. But he does not believe he has his Tory colleagues’ backing over the issue.

Government grant cuts mean that Wiltshire fire service will have to dip into its reserves next year, and two-and-a-half years from now it will be faced with finding annual savings of £3.8m on current spending.

It is only allowed to raise its income from council tax by two per cent.

Cllr Payne said a merger would mean big savings on top-level salaries and economies of scale on technical support and specialist appliances, as well as on procurement.

A public consultation on the plan was due to begin on Monday last week but was postponed until July 21 for other options to be explored.

One of these involves Wiltshire Council taking on the fire service’s back office staff.

Cllr Payne said that would only save £700,000 a year. “That still leaves you £3.1m to find,” he added.

“The only way you could do that is to make half your firefighters redundant, take two full-time stations – probably in Swindon – and make them retained, downgrade Salisbury from fully manned to day crew, with retained staff the rest of the time, reduce either or both of Chippenham and Trowbridge from day crew to retained, and lose a handful of retained stations such as Wilton.”

Amesbury's retained firefighters would probably escape unscathed because of the need to cover the A303 and military installations, he said.

New fire authority chairman Cllr Chris Devine, from Winterslow, said he met Fire Minister Brandon Lewis last week and was offered no hope of financial respite. He has also met with council leader Jane Scott and corporate director Carlton Brand.

He said: “We have cut back in every area possible. We are going to have to look at frontline manning. We are looking at every option, and the membership will make a decision after an appraisal of the options by officers.”

Mr Payne says speedy decision-making is crucial, because a merger would require Parliamentary approval, which could take a year.

“My only interest in this is to maintain safety and existing coverage for the people of Wiltshire and Swindon, who hold the fire service in such respect and admiration,” he said. “I would hate to see us in a situation where we had to double our response times.”