Local mergers of police forces must be allowed if they are to maintain frontline services while coping with deep cuts to the £12.6bn law enforcement budget, one of the leading officers has warned.
Sir Hugh Orde, the new head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said substantial cuts were “utterly inevitable” and accused all the mainstream parties of not facing up to the fact that an urgent restructuring was needed of the 43 forces in England and Wales.
The comments are likely to put senior officers at odds with both Labour and Conservative politicians. The Tories have promised to give more control of police forces to local communities if they win power, while both the Conservatives and Labour have criticised police for failing to tackle anti-social behaviour.
Alan Johnson, home secretary, on Tuesday described as “ludicrous” claims by Leicestershire police that it was the job of councils to tackle yob behaviour.
A previous £1bn attempt to merge police forces, led by former home secretary Charles Clarke, was abandoned in 2006 amid accusations that the plan was poorly funded and chaotic.
Many politicians argue that mergers of local forces are unpopular with voters, even though police commanders say they will be essential in the fight against organised crime and terrorism.
Speaking to MPs on the Commons’ home affairs committee on Tuesday, Sir Hugh called for an urgent formal review to look into restructuring the antiquated 43-force structure.
“Having attended every party conference over the past month, the debate around a review does not seem to be on any party’s agenda,” he added.
Bob Russell, a Liberal Democrat member of the committee, said “bringing back police force mergers is contrary to community support”.
Sir Hugh responded that it would be possible to have both large regional forces and local commanders responding regularly to neighbourhood concerns.
Police argue it will be difficult to maintain current levels of frontline services without reforming local forces. About 80 per cent of police budgets are spent on personnel, meaning officer numbers and emergency call response staff will be difficult to protect in the event of deep cuts.
The prospect of cuts will highlight the tensions between neighbourhood work and the need to tackle terrorism and cross-border organised crime, an area where police have been deemed to be falling short.