Clarke proposals meet resistance in the shires: Police chiefs uneasy about planned reforms

Click to follow
Indy Politics
WALTER GIRVEN, the eighth and possibly last Chief Constable of Wiltshire, thinks Kenneth Clarke's plans for structural reforms of the police are flawed: 'I doubt very much that there is any real understanding of the loyalty which exists in this county for their local force.'

Yesterday's announcement by the Home Secretary that boundary changes will not be imposed upon the police service but will come as a result of local needs, 'when the time is right', was greeted with relief by Mr Girven and his colleagues in the smaller forces. But it will not put an end to uncertainty.

Although Mr Clarke's statement will be interpreted as a climbdown from his artfully floated suggestions that 43 forces were too many, he made it clear he still favoured structural reform and may return to the idea when political conditions are right.

As a result of greater devolved powers to local police commanders the country, he said, 'may no longer need 43 separate headquarters, maintaining 43 parallel organisations'.

Such plans have caused horror among police and local councillors, creating a formidable alliance of chief constables and police authorities, joined in cross-party opposition to Mr Clarke. For the time being, Mr Clarke appears to have listened to some of their arguments. There was also a welcome for greater local control over budget management.

Ray White, Chief Constable of Dyfed Powys Police, which has the largest geographical area and the smallest establishment in England and Wales, contends that Mr Clarke plans a de facto national police force in a Home Office-orchestrated climate of change. Centrally appointed police authority members, together with 'national standards' of policing and cash-limited budgets, go some way towards reinforcing that view.

Mr White and Mr Girven argue that small forces are simply more cost effective than larger ones, such as the Metropolitan Police. They have, they say, higher percentages of operational officers and better clear-up rates for crimes. They also have fewer complaints.

In Wiltshire, the oldest county force with just 1,100 officers, neither Mr Girven nor the chairman of the county police authority are likely, as Mr Clarke appears to hope, to be persuaded that change should come about.

The most canvassed possibility would be merger with its similarly- sized neighbours to the north and south, Gloucestershire and Dorset, creating a force of around 3,000, stretching from the north Cotswolds to the Devon border at Lyme Regis. 'It doesn't make much sense geographically; the force would have no identity,' Mr Girven says. He rejects the economies of scale argument. 'If we merged with the north and south forces, there would still be a need for a headquarters. It would make sense to have it here at Devizes, which is close to being the geographic centre. But this building would have to be extended to cope since we are overcrowded.'

According to Mr Girven, the virtue of small forces means he is accessible to both his own force and the public. Wiltshire supports the idea of giving local town commanders more devolved power and budgetary accountability - a Home Office message repeated again yesterday by Mr Clarke - but Mr Girven maintains that their ability to create policy must be limited.

'Policy has to come from the centre,' he says. 'If you give too much policy to local commanders, then you simply re-create the small borough forces we abolished years ago. Yet you cannot simply allow the Home Office to dictate policy from London. That is why shire forces like ours were created as a compromise and that is why they should remain.'

Equally, Mr Girven says, it is very easy for him to maintain a close working relationship with his police authority, whose members are free to contact him or his local commanders on any issue.

However, it is the often cosy relationship between some police authorities and their chief constables that may lie behind Mr Clarke's thinking when he announced yesterday that he wanted authorities to set local targets for force performances. They should be 'more businesslike', he said.

Although relieved at the prospect of changes being placed on the back burner for the time being, the Conservative chairman of the Wiltshire authority, a retired Army officer, Lt-Col Derek Jarvis, views any alterations to its structure with alarm.

'I think they weaken one arm of the tripartite relationship established in the 1964 Police Act and reduce local accountability,' he says.

'I think we have enough businessmen on the authority anyway - I would feel happier if they were appointed locally rather than by Whitehall. The whole process gives much more power to the centre.'

But one reason why Mr Clarke has chosen to downplay the merger arguments is a political one: local loyalties are held dearly and Wiltshire County Council elections are due on 6 May. With a majority of one, the possible abolition of the county's own 154- year-old police force is precisely the kind of issue that could lose the Conservatives control. For that alone, Lt- Col Jarvis was yesterday offering silent thanks to Mr Clarke.

(Photograph omitted)