Police stations face closure in cash crisis: A pounds 35m budget shortfall over four years in South Wales could mean severe cuts in local policing

DOZENS OF local police stations in South Wales could begin closing in the spring because of a serious financial crisis that is facing the force, the region's chief constable warned last night.

Robert Lawrence, Chief Constable of South Wales, issued his warning after his force's police authority said yesterday that it could only afford to increase his pounds 131m budget by 1.75 per cent in the next financial year. He had asked for an increase of 6.3 per cent to maintain policing at existing levels.

Mr Lawrence said that to cope with the reduced budget, the force will have to consider closing about 55 of its 74 police buildings, leaving only headquarters, divisional stations and traffic offices. Some stations with specialist facilities, such as rape victim suites, could be kept partly open.

He said last night: 'This could spell the end of local policing in South Wales. These stations are very important to the communities they serve - they are where people go for help, to report crimes and to renew their gun licences.'

Other 'Draconian' cuts considered include the non-replacement of about 100 police and 100 civilian posts, a 50 per cent cut in vehicle mileage - severely curtailing patrolling - and similar restrictions in budgets for forensic science, telecommunications and other support services. The exact package would be drawn up next month.

Mr Lawrence said that the crisis followed four years of financial restrictions which had led to a pounds 35m shortfall: 'The force is in danger of being declared inefficient by the Inspectorate of Constabulary at the next inspection in February. We already have the worst police vehicle fleet in the country and some of our buildings are abominable.'

One station had already been declared unfit by the Health and Safety Executive and was due to be abandoned; additionally, the force spent an average of pounds 21 a year per officer on computers, compared with an average of pounds 429 per officer in comparable forces, he added.

The 3,160-strong force policed an area bigger than Merseyside, with a similar population and a higher crime rate, yet Merseyside had 1,600 more officers, Mr Lawrence went on. Additionally, many public events took place in Cardiff because it was the capital city of Wales, although he said that he had been wrongly reported as calling for a cutback in Royal visits to the area; such events were just part of the overall burden on the force.

South Wales Police Authority said that it could not afford to meet Mr Lawrence's budget because of government restrictions on local authority expenditure. It is due to meet the Home Office and the Welsh Office to discuss the crisis.

Russell Goodway, leader of South Glamorgan County Council and a member of the authority, said that there would be a public outcry if the cuts went ahead. 'The Government has put this police authority in a disastrous position. It is worse than a worst-case scenario.'

The Home Office emphasised last night that, as a result of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's November Budget, every public service was subject to spending constraints next year.