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Hampshire fire and police merger speculation mounts
THEY are the frontline emergency services working 24 hours a day to keep the people of Hampshire safe.
From tackling serious crime and helping bring offenders to justice to dealing with some of the most horrific road crashes and fighting fire – it’s all part of the job for the county’s police and fire services.
But could they now be about to find themselves on the cusp of one of the biggest shake-ups their organisations have ever seen?
As the Government continues to swing the axe heavily on public services, both Hampshire Constabulary and Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service say they are having to take drastic measures to carefully balance the task of making millions of pounds of savings, while sustaining the levels of service that the county’s residents expect.
Talks have been ongoing about merging ‘back office’ services while publicly there have also been moves to join forces to save cash – with a number of police stations closing and officers moving into fire stations to share space and costs.
Meanwhile there are rumbles of discontent within the ranks of both organisations, with job cuts, periods of recruitment freezes, whispers of increasingly plummeting morale and a very public firefighter strike over a pensions row.
But could the two organisations, who so regularly work in tandem, be about to make an unprecedented move and take their biggest step yet towards working as one super organisation?
Very possibly, it seems.
Today the Daily Echo can reveal how Hampshire police are in discussions with two potential buyers for their current headquarters in West Hill, Winchester – and could be close to accepting a sizeable offer.
It comes just days after it was revealed that the “white elephant” Alpha Park – the Chandler’s Ford base bought at a price well over the odds six years ago as a new headquarters – has finally been sold at a loss to the taxpayer.
But it is believed that the police could also be on the verge of shelving plans to relocate in Winchester – despite having already bought the building for their new home.
For two years the force has planned to move more than 150 of its staff into a new HQ in Mottisfont Court, a building they bought in the heart of the city from the council for £1.5m.
But it is believed that plan could be on the verge of being scrapped and a search launched once again for a new home.
While there is no official word on the idea, it will naturally raise strong speculation that the fire service’s Eastleigh headquarters could be tipped as the perfect location.
On paper, the idea makes great sense, with the hierarchy of the police and fire services all neatly homed under one roof.
But what gives it even greater weight is the Government’s proposal to scrap fire authorities in England and Wales, in favour of a PCC taking charge of both organisations.
The Daily Echo revealed last November how the idea, mooted by Justice Minister Damian Green, was given a warm welcome by Police and Crime Commisioner Simon Hayes, who said he supported any plan to get blue light services to work more closely together. He feels “a lot could be learned” from such an approach.
And in a meeting last week in London in which Mr Green addressed all PCCs, it was said to be once again at the forefront of discussions and something the Government is keen to bring in.
Now it is understood that Hampshire has been officially asked to consider piloting the idea that is aimed at increasing accountability and driving through much-needed reform in the fire service – but it’s not clear if and when that will happen.
It will be bad news for the current boss of Hampshire Fire Authority, Royston Smith, who rubbished the idea being proposed by his own Conservative party saying “it simply wouldn’t work” adding “it was more than a step too far”.
Cllr Smith, the former leader of Southampton City Council, said at the time: “The only synergy with police and fire is that they are two uniformed organisations – but what they do is very different.
“It is something that someone has looked at – with all due respect to them – without knowing the details of the two jobs.
“If the whole driving force is to find an efficiency, the efficiency is so miniscule it is almost not worth doing.
“For efficiencies, fire and ambulance works better than fire and police. It is more than a step too far. It is something that I don’t think will work at all.”
Only time will tell if the disquiet of Cllr Smith – the Tories’ choice as candidate to fight for the Southampton Itchen seat at the next general election – could be enough to shelve the idea for now.
But there is no doubting it could be one option as a way forward for two organisations feeling the bite of swinging cuts and struggling to balance the books.
Already this month, Hampshire police, who employ 5,702 (3,470 of them police officers) have brought out their begging bowl and pleaded their case with taxpayers – asking them to dig deep and find an extra £5 a year per household to offset the damage of the latest round of spending review cuts.
As previously reported by the Daily Echo, in the wake of making savings of more than £50m they now face finding a way to slice another £25m from their budget – prompting a stern warning by Police and Crime Commissioner Simon Hayes to Prime Minister David Cameron that anything more will put the people of Hampshire in danger, adding that “public safety is at risk”.
Over at the fire service, where there are 1,929 employees, the situation doesn’t seem quite so desperate – not yet.
This week it was revealed there is no plan to hike their portion of the council tax this year due to a £2.5m surplus in their accounts, having already strived to make savings through a variety of forms including freezing recruitment.
But a report due to go before finance bosses at Hampshire Fire Authority reveals that there will be a funding gap of £12m in three years’ time – and that residents should expect council tax increases from 2015 onwards.
PCC Simon Hayes last night refused to be drawn on any such idea, but said: “The estates strategy of the force is built on working with other publicly-funded bodies and we are talking to Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service about opportunities we might have in the future.
“Selling Alpha Park gives us some capital to reinvest in new locations for us.”
Reacting to the idea, John Apter, chairman of Hampshire Police Federation representing rank and file officers in the county, gave a cautious welcome.
He said: “If this is a genuine way forward then I think the idea has got merit. But we would really have to look at the governance around it and it would need a close eye.
“Some would argue that there is greater synergy between the fire and ambulance services than the fire and police, but it’s an interesting position.
“As an alternative to privatising chunks of the police force, I think it’s a good idea and importantly, it keeps the ownership local, but I’d like to see the detail.”
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