Almost 6,000 frontline police posts will be axed and hundreds of police stations shut to the public within three years as forces hunt for ways of cutting spending by £2.4bn, the police inspectorate said yesterday.
It also warned that three forces – the Metropolitan Police, Devon and Cornwall and Lincolnshire – could struggle to provide a "sufficiently efficient or effective service" because of having to reduce costs.
Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) calculated that 32,400 officers and civilian staff would be shed by 2015, including 5,800 frontline police and 7,600 non-frontline officers. Frontline numbers are falling by six per cent, but staffing in back-office posts is being slashed by a third, leaving forces looking for jobs that can be passed to private firms. Forces expect to close 264 front counters in stations – more than one-fifth of the national total – in the search for savings, and plan to compensate by opening 137 counters in "shared locations" such as libraries.
Sir Denis O'Connor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, said: "They are protecting, but they are not preserving, the frontline."
The 43 forces in England and Wales have been told to reduce spending by £2.4bn by 2015 after cuts of 20 per cent by the Government to police authorities. Forces have so far identified economies of £2.1bn, leaving a shortfall of £300m. The Metropolitan Police accounts for £233m of this.
In its latest report, the HMIC said forces had managed to achieve the first round of cuts without appearing to affect their service to the public so far, but added that it was worried about three forces' ability to cope with reduced budgets.
"The Metropolitan Police Service is considered a particular concern because of its outstanding savings requirement, its performance issues and not least the fact that it accounts for one-quarter of police spending."
The criticism of the Met's forward planning follows the recent arrival of Bernard Hogan-Howe as Commissioner following the resignation of Sir Paul Stephenson and the appointment of Stephen Greenhalgh as the London Mayor's Deputy Mayor for Policing. Sir Denis said: "There has been a pause because of all the changes at the top of the Met, executive and politically, and the Olympics. That combination has paused things, so we've got £233m to find, they make up the bulk of the outstanding money to be found nationally.
"The second thing is they've had performance issues. Crime has been bubbling up and down for them and their satisfaction levels are not satisfactory, they're low, so they've got limited timescales and a lot to do."
Sir Denis said that Lincolnshire had a low cost base and covered a large geographical area, while Devon and Cornwall had been making savings for years before the latest spending cuts were ordered.
Paul McKeever, chairman of the Police Federation, said the report revealed "the smokescreen that some forces are saying the front line is not affected by moving officers from important functions elsewhere". He said: "Whichever way you cut it, the resilience of the police service to be able to react to whatever is thrown at it is being threatened."
Chief Constable Steve Finnigan, of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said: "In a service where 80 per cent of our budgets are spent on pay, we will continue to see reductions in police officer and police staff numbers across the country, and all forces will work very hard to mitigate the impact of such significant reductions in the number of our people."
But Nick Herbert, the Policing minister, said: "This report makes it clear that the front line is being protected overall and that the service to the public has largely been maintained. The proportion of officers on the front line is increasing, the number of neighbourhood officers has gone up, crime is down … and the response to emergency calls is being maintained."