One of Britain's most senior police officers has proposed widespread mergers of the country's police forces in what would be the biggest shake-up of policing in a generation.
Sir Hugh Orde, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), says amalgamating some of Britain's 43 forces is the best way to make use of Home Office budgets, which he believes are set to shrink by up to 20 per cent due to the recession.
His comments revive an idea which dates back to 2005, when the then Home Secretary Charles Clarke suggested merging neighbouring forces to create 17 larger police regions. The plans were scrapped a year later, with many forces unimpressed or unwilling to commit to the proposals.
Sir Hugh says the plan should now be reconsidered given the current economic climate. But due to the unpopularity of the proposals four years ago, and the lack of police co-operation, he says that politicians are fearful of backing a similar plan. "I have raised [amalgamations] with every political party, and I do not detect any political will to deliver this in the foreseeable future. The sense I get is that it is not an urgent priority," he said.
Although the Home Office is happy to allow any forces that want to merge to do so, it is unlikely to go down the road of attempting to impose mergers upon unwilling police authorities and chief constables again.
But Sir Hugh says that without the Government taking the lead, mergers will not happen. He added: "Some forces are better funded than others, so if you are looking at an amalgamation between a rich force and a less rich force, all sorts of politics come into play, which is why it requires central leadership to iron out those issues.
"We need an independent review and, if you do that, you do it across the country and police forces agree to subscribe to that review's findings. It is the only logical way of doing it. We need to learn from what I thought were very genuine attempts from Charles Clarke to rationalise police structures."
The primary reason for suggesting mergers is the weak economy. Forces are expecting budgets to be cut, but are aware that the public will demand that frontline officer numbers do not drop – the areas in which savings are possible are back-office functions. Many also believe that smaller forces are simply not equipped to deal with the threat of large-scale organised crime.
Sir Hugh said: "This country is in a recession. There is no more money for the public sector and I can confidently predict cuts in police budgets of 10 to 20 per cent over the next few years. We really have to focus on what is important – what keeps people safe, what works and what does not.
"[Chief officers] are looking at driving out efficiencies from the back office. They are looking at amalgamating tasks across different police forces – so major inquiry teams will cover more than one county – human resources functions, finance functions, anything we can do to protect the front line will be done."
Some forces have already started to merge some operational aspects of their work. Norfolk and Suffolk share a witness protection unit, while Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire share a major crimes team. Other forces are known to share helicopters while some share teams that are only sparingly used, such as underwater units. Others have even started buying cars together, ensuring they get the cheapest rate when buying in bulk from dealers.
But most are wary of committing to a full merger. They are backed by officials from both the Association of Police Authorities (APA) and the Police Federation. Both bodies say there are financial advantages to merging some teams and back-office functions, but warn that full mergers will be expensive in their own right and will provide no solutions in the short term.
Simon Reed, vice-chairman of the Police Federation, said: "The issue over amalgamation is that they cannot happen overnight. There is a long courtship and that is why they failed before.
"Also it is an expensive process in itself. The only savings will be long term, there are no short-term savings, so to cite the recession is not right. The recession would be long over by the time we got round to merging forces. We have always said that collaboration is a good thing, but amalgamation should only be done if it is really necessary. Bigger forces are not always better."
Rob Garnham, chairman of the APA, added: "Government plans to initiate mergers of police forces and police authorities were ditched several years ago. This was very good news. We must realise that amalgamation will never be a simple panacea and that there are many, many repercussions of taking such a step, which must be fully explored. Obviously the potential cost savings are attractive, but let's beware of short-term solutions to complex problems."
Forces' funding: The richest and poorest
(£) per head of population taken from 2006-07 figures
*Metropolitan Police: 317.29
*West Midlands: 189.78
*Greater Manchester: 189.54
*West Yorkshire: 168.41
*South Yorkshire: 162.74
*South Wales: 160.89
*West Mercia: 111.59
*North Yorkshire: 112.12
*Essex: 118.00Reuse content