Westwood finds few friends on home beat

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The sight of a brand new police station up ahead must have seemed like a dream come true to Stephen Clark, a delivery driver, when he got lost in east Hull yesterday.

But when he approached for directions, he found the message "Enquiries office closed" pinned to the locked front door. "Where's a bobby when you need one?" he groaned.

Although he didn't realise it, Mr Clark, 54, had stumbled on the heart of a problem which has left senior police officers divided in these parts.

It also further destabilises Humberside's embattled Chief Constable, David Westwood, whom David Blunkett will seek to get suspended at the High Court today in the wake of the failings outlined in the Bichard report into the police investigation of the Soham murders.

The Marfleet Southcoates station is one of many that Mr Westwood is having built at a £16m cost to local taxpayers. The stations are to house 39 local police teams (LPTs) and get officers back on the beat.

The problem with Mr Westwood's LPT plan is how to provide the officers to fill the stations. Firstly, much to the dismay of many senior officers, Mr Westwood dismantled the force's central CID and traffic divisions and used the officers for his new LPTs.

After an increase in criminal inquiries, Mr Westwood was forced him to take many of the officers away from the LPTs again. Many of the expensive police stations are, like Marfleet Southcoates, empty.

A police inspectorate report into Humberside published two months ago found that 45 per cent of Mr Westwood's staff were opposed to his reforms. It concluded that the force's ability to reassure the public was "poor", despite the move to LPTs, and that the visibility of officers had declined from 18.1 per cent to 15.9 per cent.

Humberside was Britain's second worst performing police force, the report said, and had struggled "to maintain the focus and ability of LPTs in the face of competing demands".

The Home Secretary has already seized on the report in the case he is making against Mr Westwood.

Although returning officers to the beat helps combat the public's perceptions of the threat of crime, the unprecedented speed of change in Humberside seems to have contributed to the force's low ranking and handed Mr Blunkett a second weapon to use on Mr Westwood.

A recently retired chief inspector told The Independent yesterday that the reforms had been chaotic.

"The LPT idea was floating around in March 2001 and the implementation date was 3 September," he said. "That was not achievable. It meant ringing around various [officers] to cobble local police teams together. At the very least it should have been done a division at a time."

Sources suggest that many senior officers agree - and have little desire to see the Chief Constable stay. "Officers believe Mr Westwood should have bitten the bullet and resigned," said the retired officer.

Aware that its LPT strategy demanded extra staff, Humberside police authority has trebled its council tax bill in four years and recruited furiously. It has more officers than ever (2,200 against 1,700 four years ago) and 40 per cent of its numbers are probationers.

But the force is still short on numbers to fulfil its vision. Police authority chairman Colin Inglis defended the policy but conceded that 3,000 more officers were needed to see it through.

"There's some truth in the suggestion [that it's proving difficult to staff the local teams]. The speed of it all did upset some officers because they had got into a nice, old routine but you need a big bang to get the culture change."

Mr Westwood is reverting to some of the old central functions, such as traffic policing. There are also plans to re-establish a small CID squad.

The problems leave Hull divided over whether Mr Westwood should stay. An official from one of Humberside's 600 neighourhood watch teams said: "The chief raised expectations - but the public's expectation of what local police teams are about has never materialised."

Letters about Mr Westwood to the local Hull Daily Mailare currently running at 80 per cent in favour of the Chief Constable and the paper's editorial support of Mr Westwood reflects some popular police operations in the community.

"Operation Hatch, an anti-drugs operation, has brought 200 charges and counting and 15 in one street. That's what people want," the paper's assistant editor, Paul Hartley, said yesterday. The paper's front page carried a picture of Mr Westwood at the kind of event he needs more of: the swearing in of 17 recruits to help swell the ranks at his police stations.

Today's events - a police authority meeting to examine Mr Blunkett's demands, followed by a possible High Court hearing this afternoon - will reveal whether he will be sticking around to see if they can salvage his big project.

WESTWOOD: WHAT THEY SAY

FOR

Colin Inglis, chairman of Humberside police authority: "The last thing Humberside Police needs is a big song and dance about the Home Secretary trying to get rid of him. The person who murdered Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman is in prison. Trying to blame any other individual is a fool's errand."

John Meehan, editor of the Hull Daily Mail: "I strongly suspect that David Westwood is a convenient scapegoat. He's been a good leader of Humberside Police and should be allowed to carry on sorting out the mess exposed by the Soham scandal."

Lisa Hilder, Hull women's centre manager: "He seems to going in the right direction. It's early days in his policy of opening police stations but we find there's a lot more police support for use [because of it]."

AGAINST

David Blunkett, Home Secretary: "Chief Constable Westwood should not have operational control of the force while Humberside Police Authority and I consider the appropriate way to respond to Sir Michael Bichard's findings."

Jon Grubb, Scunthorpe Telegraph editor: "I don't think anyone will go into bat for him. The Home Secretary has done the right thing. He needs to go.''

Mark Oaten, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman: "The current stand-off between the Home Secretary and the police authority over the future of David Westwood will damage public confidence in the police. Irrespective of the legal position, the chief constable should resign".