A Government minister has blamed the Tyne and Wear fire service for making front-line cuts.
Service chiefs want to close the Sunderland Central station and merge crews at Gosforth and Wallsend to cover an £8.8m drop in government funding.
But fire minister Brandon Lewis implied the fire service should save money by using a government training college almost 240 miles away.
He said: “This body has had a cut of a couple of per cent in spending power for each of the past couple of years and has built up its reserves. It has been able to spend that on extra training facilities when the Government already have a training facility.”
He said it was up to Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Authority to manage its own funds based on “local risk” and suggested digging into its £30m reserve to cover the cost. But the service hit back, saying his comments “do not fully reflect the picture” and that spending its reserves would create a financial “cliff edge” as faced by the US government last year.
Chief fire officer Tom Capeling said: “The authority is not spending reserves on extra training facilities. Our training centre was opened 18 years ago and we continue to send some officers to the south for specialist training.
“If reserves were used to meet the projected gap then over £16.8m would be required over the next three years. This would create a cliff edge that would need to be addressed in the year after.
“We would either be living in hope that ‘something would turn up’ in the meantime – imprudent and unlikely given the comments made about further cuts in future - or we would need to lose a lot of staff very quickly, as opposed to the measured and managed approach we are proposing to take.”
He said it would cost too much money to send all 866 of its firefighters for regular training in Gloucestershire and would keep them away from duty for too long.
The service expects to lose £12.9m by April 2017 and claims it is “disproportionately” hurt by the cuts because its council tax takings are lower.
Newcastle MP Chi Onwurah, who had asked Mr Lewis about the closure of Gosfirth Fire Station, said: “I don’t see how a fire service can lose almost a quarter of its funding without impacting front line services.
“Mr Lewis’s response was wholly inadequate and took no responsibility for the risks his policies pose, whilst trying to distract us with comments on training.”
But Dave Turner, of the Fire Brigades Union, said fire chiefs’ chosen plan was “nonsensical” and that their £30m reserve “could and should be used.”
He said: “Any comment from the government that put all the onus on local authorities is disingenuous at best, but the fire authority shouldn’t be making these cuts.”