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Police not calling helicopters to chase criminals because they cost too much and take too long to arrive, report warns

Inspector warns that criminals could be taking advantage of the lack of air support

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 30 November 2017 01:00 GMT
Report reveals response times vary drastically across the country
Report reveals response times vary drastically across the country (PA)

Police are deliberately not calling helicopters because they cost too much or take too long to arrive, potentially allowing criminals to escape, according to a damning new report.

In its first independent study of police air support, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) said plummeting numbers of helicopters and bases were providing sub-standard responses to ongoing incidents.

It called for the current strategy to be drastically reformed or scrapped, as figures show more than 40 per cent of calls are cancelled because aircraft will arrive too late.

Criminals in some areas are taking advantage of the lower chances of being chased by air, with prisoners telling one force they believed “police no longer had ready access to helicopter support”.

HM Inspector of Constabulary, Matt Parr, said the National Police Air Service (NPAS) was being used less, costing more and not serving police as well.

“Police are using helicopters less and we don’t think it’s because of a decline in incidents where they are needed, but because it’s getting more and more expensive,” he added.

“The response is such that forces don’t think they will get a helicopter by the time they need it.”

He warned that there was no cohesive national guidance on what helicopters should be used for, despite 66,780 calls for air support last year, nor when other assets or search methods can be used more effectively.

Police helicopters take more than an hour to arrive in Cumbria on average (Alamy)

The inspection also raised concerns over the lack of a central strategy for drones, which regional forces are purchasing and using on an ad-hoc basis, with mixed results.

Police services operated their own helicopters regionally until NPAS was formed five years ago, in a strategy Mr Parr described as a politically-pressured “rush job” that left problems with where bases were situated, how demand is met and the funding formula.

NPAS aimed to make better and more efficient use of resources but since 2009, the number of helicopters has dropped from 32 to 19, and bases from 31 to 15 – with consequences for forces situated the furthest away.

The average response time in 2016 was more than an hour in Cumbria, and around 50 minutes for Dyfed-Powys and Lincolnshire, but only 10 minutes for the Metropolitan Police.

Inspectors said the variations were “mostly but not exclusively dictated by geography”, with little relation between the amount forces pay and the service they receive.

Funding has fallen by a quarter in real terms over the past decade, HMIC said, and the current model creates huge spending differences between regional forces that pay only for helicopters that arrive, rather than the calls they make.

The arrangement meant that the City of London paid just £2,600 in an entire year for two actioned calls for service, but the neighbouring Met paid more than £7.2m on almost 5,500 incidents.

The cost averaged out at £1,314 for each call where a helicopter was sent, meaning the spending per head of the local population each year varied dramatically in each force area, and the cost per flying hour has doubled.

“We suspect that as a result of forces’ perception of the unfairness of the current model, some forces may be seeking to reduce their use of NPAS even though this may not be operationally appropriate,” the report cautioned.

Mr Parr said that although senior officers might aim to save money by not calling helicopters, there was no analysis of how much is spent on using other resources instead.

The warning comes amid repeated calls from senior police officers for increased funding to combat the national terror threat and rising demand, while the Home Office insists further efficiencies can be made.

The fastest helicopter response times are in London (Getty) (Getty Images)

Mr Parr said the number of flying hours had fallen by 45 per cent, but there was “no evidence to suggest demand has reduced” amid rocketing 999 calls and a rise in reported crime across England and Wales.

“They are cutting the cost by providing a substantially less effective service than when forces had their own helicopters,” he added.

“It’s cheaper [for the Government] than it was but there’s no evidence that it’s more efficient – it does less.

“The costs aren’t shared fairly between forces and we don’t think NPAS is financially sustainable.

“Its model of charging, the way it spends money, the way it has banked money, doesn’t look to us like it’s on solid ground.”

Although NPAS is meeting its own targets, Mr Parr said they were not “true measures of how it is supporting policing”.

He forecast “some sort of breakdown” with forces trying to pull out of collaboration, telling police leaders: “You need to sort this out pronto, because at the moment it is heading for real problems.”

Statistics show that helicopters are mainly used for searches and police pursuits or managing “crimes in action”, making them a crucial tool to track and catch suspects.

The report warned that no new helicopters have been purchased since NPAS was formed and many of those being used have passed their target working life, causing rising maintenance costs to keep them safe.

Mr Parr said that although the body had purchased four fixed-wing aircraft, “without a fully developed plan for what they’re for – they’re just cheaper”.

Mr Parr said his instinct was that having a “blank sheet of paper and starting again” would be more successful than trying to reform NPAS, but leaders said work was ongoing to update the service.

Chief Constable Dee Collins, who leads NPAS, admitted the shift to a national police air service had been “challenging”.

“To deliver stretching national efficiencies, we have sought to change the expectations of police forces about the role of air support in policing and to do so has been a difficult process,” she added.

“We look forward to working with NPCC and Home Office colleagues as we continue this journey and we hope to provide others that follow with a blueprint for national delivery.”

Mark Burns-Williamson, the West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner and chair of NPAS, said drones were a key part of its future strategy and added: “Our pilots and staff provide an invaluable service, particularly within the context of national austerity imposed on the police service where running costs have been significantly reduced from £55 to £38m and are significant factors to be borne in mind.”

The Home Office said it had provided NPAS with the “capital required to meet their operational needs”.

“This Government has protected overall police spending in real terms since the 2015 Spending Review and,on average, forces contribute less than half a per cent of their funding to air support,” a spokesperson added.

“Whilst we support the use of drones technology, we expect police to act on the report’s recommendations and save money by purchasing expensive items such as drones collectively.”

HMIC’s damning report was released as the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) announced a separate investigation into the use of police helicopters during the Grenfell Tower fire.

An unidentified complainant, who lost several family members in the disaster, argues that their arrival encouraged some residents to remain in the burning block in the mistaken hope of rescue, and that the downdraft may have fanned the flames.

The IPCC has opened an investigation into the complaint, amid a criminal investigation into responsibility for the fire, coroner’s inquests and a public inquiry.

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