JUST two years ago it was a community hub where people would meet for lunch or stop off for a chat over a cup of tea with friends.
With a prime location in the Civic Centre, it was easily accessible to all and was a regular haunt not just with visitors to the library and city art gallery, but council workers and the many staff based in the city’s former police headquarters just around the corner.
Three years ago Southampton’s police force relocated to a state-of-the-art new home less than a mile down the road while the wind of change continued to blow through the historic site – and the once popular cafe also shut up shop, never to reopen.
The derelict Fountains Cafe at Southampton Civic Centre could turn into a community policing hub
But now, in an ironic twist, the derelict Fountains Cafe could be given a new lease of life as a hub of policing in Southampton.
It is the latest in a series of changes being phased in by Hampshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner Simon Hayes, who is under pressure to make £25m of savings over the next two years in the face of continuing budget cuts.
As exclusively revealed by the Daily Echo in 2011, plans to close stations across the county got under way with Mr Hayes ordering a review into the estates owned by the force with a view to selling off unnecessary land to make money.
Across Hampshire, stations were closed and officers relocated to other community buildings, while other force property was put up for sale.
In Southampton, Shirley police station was the first to be closed – with around 80 officers moved from the familiar station on Shirley High Street in to Redbridge fire station, to share the building – and the costs.
The opening of the Shirley Safe Neighbourhoods offices at Redbridge Fire Station in 2013
That project has been hailed such a success it has been heaped with praise – and, more importantly, vital cash – from central Government, with Mr Hayes handed £1.5m to develop the idea of sharing facilities with the fire service.
This week, having more than halved the hefty £80m estates bill the force had when he took up his post, Mr Hayes unveiled his latest action plan for the next four years.
His aim – to reduce the total running costs of what is left of the estate by up to £3m a year.
The latest plans will include the closure and sell-off of Bitterne police station in two years’ time, with officers most likely to be moved in to share facilities at Hightown fire station.
While the closure of another police station is likely to cause dismay among local residents, there is a consensus that these tough decisions are one of the few positives to come from the financial struggles being faced by Hampshire Constabulary as it strives to drag its Victorian estate into a financially tough 21st century.
After all, closing buildings avoids the axe falling on officer numbers on the front line – and that is the better option in a bad situation, according to those at the top.
The idea is supported by John Apter, chairman of Hampshire Police Federation, that represents the rank and file officers on an already-stretched thin blue line.
An agreement with the city council will see a £200,000 refurbishment of Fountains Cafe to become a police office for the Safer Neighbourhood Teams and possibly the emergence of a front desk.
The ambition is that this will be complete by August next year.
The plans come three years after the force’s £35m flagship city headquarters were opened in Southern Road amid criticism it was difficult for the public to access.
The proposal will also include an £800,000 refurbishment of Portswood police station to accomodate double the number of officers currently stationed there.
There is also an ambition to reopen the front desk at Portswood once the refurbishment is completed in November.
Leader of Southampton City Council, Simon Letts, has welcomed the move to share public facilities, which are not currently being used at full capacity.
He said: “We are very supportive of this new way of working together, and we are in discussions about a public face for police in the city centre. I am often stopped by members of the public outside the Civic Centre, asking where the police station is, so it makes sense to have one.
“It helps Simon Hayes to provide a public face for police in Southampton, particularly in the city centre, where police are very active for a number of reasons, including the night-time economy.
“We work closely with the police on a lot of issues, such as housing, so it makes sense to share bases both financially and to make the most of public facilities.”
Mr Hayes said: “The strategy builds on successful partnerships that have been forged as part of my commitment to neighbourhood policing and moves from an owned to a shared estate. The reviewed strategy aims to deliver an estate that supports future policing, to ensure that the facilities provided are fit for purpose in today’s economic climate, meets officers’ and staff needs and puts policing in the heart of the community, while ensuring the best value for the investments made with public funds.
“Over the past couple of years the Estate Change Programme (ECP) successfully co-located a number of police officers and staff into shared service facilities with colleagues in local councils and HFRS buildings.
“Similarly it is our aim to work with district, unitary and the county councils to ensure that the police can operate from fit for purpose facilities in convenient locations within the heart of local communities at no additional cost to the public.
“We want to reassure the public that we are not moving away. We need to accept that what policing looks like in Hampshire will change.”
James Payne, estate strategy and delivery director, aded: “We are not spending texpayers money, we are reinvesting the cash we make from the sale of police stations to ensure policing stays at the heart of the community.
John Apter, chairman of the Hampshire Police Federation, has given the plans as a whole a thumbs-up.
He said: “We don’t have enough money and this has forced decisions which should have been made 15 to 20 years ago. Out of this budget crisis this is a positive story.
“This is protecting officer numbers, making what is a Victorian estate fit for purpose and modernising the way we do things.
“The problem we have suffered across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight is that there has been no real genuine investment in our estate, and it has been left to fester.
“I think we do need to make policing accessible for everybody, so the idea of the front desk in the Fountains Cafe is encouraging.”
He added: “As much as Southampton central police station is a flagship building, it is a little bit out of the way for the city centre.”