Hants Lead New Police Helicopter Unit

Police forces must work together to bring in a national air service that will save £15 million a year, according to the Policing Minister.

Nick Herbert will say powers to order forces to collaborate with each other will be used for the first time to replace each force's own helicopter with the national unit.

Under the plans, which are headed by Hampshire's Chief Constable Alex Marshall, the number of police helicopters and air bases will be slashed by a third across England and Wales.

But Mr Herbert will say the National Police Air Service (NPAS) will provide forces with access to helicopters 24 hours a day, 365 days year, rather than a force's helicopter being out of use for weeks for repairs.

''Chief officers of all forces in England and Wales have given their support to the proposal, as have the overwhelming majority of police authorities in principle,'' Mr Herbert will say.

''But to get the full benefits, the commitment of the whole of the police service in England and Wales is needed.

''In exceptional cases of last resort, I am prepared to mandate arrangements where a small minority of authorities or forces creates a barrier to more efficient and effective policing.

''I am therefore announcing today that I intend to make an order requiring the police service to collaborate in the provision of air support.

''It will require all authorities and forces to collaborate in the provision of air support through a single collaboration agreement for England and Wales.''

It is the first time the mandation powers, brought in under the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, will be used.

There were 30 police air bases serving 32 aircraft, costing the 43 forces about £70 million a year, when the review of air support started in 2009.

Under the plans this will be cut to 22 bases serving 24 aircraft - shaving £15 million off the air support budget. One of the bases will be at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire.

Rather than each force having its own helicopter patrolling its region, the new national service will be responsible for the whole of England and Wales and be operated from one central command centre.

There will also be a clear ''user requirement'' laid out, meaning cost-intensive flights will be approved only if they are necessary.

The ground-breaking proposals were put forward in October 2010 by the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), which has been working with the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA).

As well as the proposed 22 aircraft - of which the Metropolitan Police will have three - there will be three spare helicopters on standby.

The oldest helicopters of the current fleet will be sold off along with some bases, which have large overhead costs. Acpo has said some jobs will be lost as a result of the overhaul, but a number of officers would be redeployed.

Hampshire Police Chief Constable Alex Marshall, who has spearheaded the proposals and will head the new unit, said the moves will improve police helicopter coverage from 19 to 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

The current response rate - which sees 97% of the population receive air support in 20 minutes - would not be affected, he said.

' 'This is not merely a cost saving exercise,'' he said.

''While the current service is capable of doing its day job, artificial boundaries have meant that helicopters are restricted to operating within their own force area.

''A national, borderless service will ensure effective coverage of urban and rural areas.''

But not all forces have shown support, with Meredydd Hughes, the former chief constable of the South Yorkshire force, claiming the densely populated city of Sheffield would suffer.

The generalised force-wide response times hide the fact that the areas of highest crime, densest population, and major sports stadia would receive the poorest service, he said.

Aircraft serving South Yorkshire, Merseyside, Cambridge and Dyfed-Powys are among those which will be withdrawn or moved to other bases outside the force area.

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