A police car is on its way... but first a word from our sponsors

Harrods, the Body Shop and Ford are paying to protect us. Helen Nowicka and Damian Wild report
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British retailers have discovered a new marketing device - the sponsored police car.

Last Friday, that most skilful of publicists, Mohammed Al Fayed, posed for the cameras beside a Rover car bearing the inscription, "This car is sponsored by Harrods", in the store's distinctive handwriting.

Mr Fayed, chairman of the Knightsbridge store, whose company bought the vehicle for use by special constables, said it was handing over the car because "we all have a stake in making our city a safer and better place".

It's a stake for which many businesses are prepared to pay. Threshers, the Body Shop and Ford car dealers have all sponsored police equipment and services. Now, the private sector is even getting involved in police stations - work starts on the first station to be built with the aid of private funds in the next few months.

With many police forces badly needing investment, several have hired marketing staff to seek out potential sponsors. Recently the Audit Commission estimated that in the past 10 years, demands on the police nationally had risen by 60 per cent, while resources had grown by a 10th of that amount.

The door to such deals opened two years ago with the passing of the1994 Police and Magistrates' Court Act which allowed constabularies to raise an equivalent of 1 per cent of their annual budget through sponsorship.

The result is a range of business tie-ups that would gladden the heart of a Premier League commercial director. Lancashire has a fleet of 12 cars for use by special constables, paid for by local businesses or councils. Avon and Somerset's suites for victims of sex assaults were fitted out by several firms, including the Body Shop.

Leading the way is North Yorkshire, the first force to recruit a sponsorship and marketing officer. Since Roy Philpott was appointed at the end of last year, he has seen it acquire mobile phones and pagers from a manufacturer, sponsored cars from a Ford dealer, and car-stopping devices from an anonymous source. With other gifts, the total haul is worth pounds 100,000.

Mr Philpott does not believe in cold-calling prospective sponsors, but has found considerable willingness among busineses to have their name linked with the police. "We are doing good for the community, that's our brand. In some respects, sponsoring us is no different from sponsoring a sports event."

North Yorkshire has its own guidelines governing what constitutes an appropriate sponsor. Home Office policy, while advising that outside funding should not be directed at front-line services, leaves much to chief constables' discretion. In principle, Mr Philpott sees no difficulty in accepting sponsorship from off-licences or breweries although campaigners against drink-driving have expressed disquiet at the idea. "A lot of drinks companies now are about encouraging sensible drinking," he said. "They know it's not in their interests to promote drinking and driving."

But Fred Broughton, chairman of the Police Federation, believes sponsorship is no subsitute for adequate funding. He fears a conflict of interests, which could leave the public believing some companies getpreferential treatment. There is also concern that separate regulations which allow local authorities to buy extra policing could create a disparity between rich counties and poorer metropolitan areas. In Corby, Northants, the council spent pounds 110,000 raised by its Sunday market to fund four town- centre beat bobbies for a year to meet a public demand.

Some sponsorship deals have been vetoed, as with the optician who suggested that officers in Hampshire stop motorists, ask them to read a number plate and if they cannot, give them vouchers for a free sight test at the practice. An eye-catching Thresher's logo on a van donated to Avon and Somerset was scaled down after complaints.

The use of private money to pay for a new police station in Ilkeston will also raise eyebrows. The 100 officers and support staff are happy to be guinea-pigs, knowing that lack of funds and Home Office priorities mean that work on a new station could not otherwise start until the next century.

According to the force's director of adminstration, David Wyatt, the former mining town's 19th-century police station is "rubbish" and the new deal will save the force money. The project is not just about rebuilding but includes a long-term management contract includingcleaning, maintenance and security services.