Last Word: Struggle To See Sense In Merger

THE idea of merging Herts and Beds constabularies into one force to cut costs could leave the new force stretched thin and struggling to maintain services.

The chief constables of both forces share the view that a merger is the best possible option to protect frontline services, while saving the �40m needed to meet Government cuts in funding over the next four years.

But culling 280 support staff while trying to mesh two police forces that have their own historic regions, priorities, practices, policing styles, IT systems, police authorities, pay scales, training, and senior staff into one cohesive unit is not going to go smoothly, with the best intentions.

And worse, it could leave police on the front line without the support they need to do their job.

The chiefs argue that there has already been much successful collaboration between the two forces in such things as tackling organised crime, violent crime, and sharing helicopters.

While this is, of course, welcome, these things of themselves are often cross-boundary matters. Where the forces have tried to collaborate on other less broad issues, they have found themselves bogged down in bureaucracy and costs, and have abandoned the attempts.

What does that mean for the future of a merger into what would become the tenth largest force in England and Wales?

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The move is certainly in line with a process of centralisation. In the last decade both forces have cut out multiple divisions to centralise command.

This has been combined with a a preoccupation for focussing on its ‘visible’ activities – officers and PCSOs who are known by the neighbourhoods they serve, and for building partnerships with residents, councillors and social services.

This localism has been a positive move and has seen confidence increase in the police, and crime rates fall.

The chief constables want to protect this front line at all costs, preferring instead to cut its ‘invisible’ staff.

But while the idea may be more publically palatable, this is an artificial division.

These people are no less important in delivering the service we expect.

It begs the question: can you dump the operational activities of a massively expanded force of 6,200 staff on half the departments and expect the same level of service?

Then there is the discrepancy between the two forces.

Herts is rated a ‘good’ force by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, whereas Beds is only ‘fair’.

There is a danger that the merger will mean Hertfordshire residents are going to suffer from less effective policing.

And things could get worse. The Government has suggested cuts may increase from the proposed 25 per cent the top brass have used to do their maths, to 40 per cent.

Which means more operational cuts.

The police have their backs against the wall and are trying to do their best of course, but is the first police force merger in 40 years really the only viable option as the chief constables say?

Or is it part of a centralising tendency that could leave the force more distant, more strained, and less effective?