Norfolk has one of worst police helicopter response times in country - and it’s going to get worse

PUBLISHED: 08:00 15 June 2015 | UPDATED: 09:53 15 June 2015

The nearest police helicopter for Norfolk could be based in Essex.

The nearest police helicopter for Norfolk could be based in Essex.

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Fears have been raised over proposals to move the police helicopter base away from the area, as an investigation reveals Norfolk already receives one of the worst services in the country.

Independent Police and Crime Commissioner for Norfolk Constabulary Stephen Bett . Photo: Steve AdamsIndependent Police and Crime Commissioner for Norfolk Constabulary Stephen Bett . Photo: Steve Adams

The National Police Air Service (NPAS) plans to reduce the number of bases across the country by five by 2017, including closing Wattisham, in Suffolk, as part of cost saving measures. The move would make Boreham, in Essex, the nearest base to respond to calls.

However, an EDP investigation has cast serious doubts over the possible implications of such a move, as it revealed Norfolk already fared poorly in terms of response times and the number of requests for a helicopter that were declined – while Suffolk’s service was also below par.

In light of our revelations, both Norfolk and Suffolk’s Police Crime Commissioners have raised concerns about the plans.

Norfolk PCC Stephen Bett warned: “The service Norfolk currently receives is inadequate to say the least and things are set to get even worse.”

Suffolk’s PCC Tim Passmore added: “I’m really cross about this – the current proposals are unacceptable and this will only become worse if they continue as planned.”

Despite NPAS’s assurances of delivering an “effective and efficient” service from its 15 remaining bases, February’s announcement was met with widespread concern across the country.

Fears were raised that reduced helicopter cover could mean more high speed road chases, fewer missing persons being found and a greater risk of dangerous criminals evading capture.

Our investigation revealed vast differences in response times and acceptance rates to requests for support, with those relying on aerial bases outside their patch, as Norfolk does, faring worst.

According to NPAS’s call-log for 2014/15, forces with relatively tight boundaries containing their own bases, such as Cleveland or Greater Manchester Police, have response times averaging less than 20 minutes and among the lowest rates of declined requests.

On the other hand, forces including Norfolk, whose nearest aerial base is currently outside the county, suffer average response times more than twice as long, with a far higher rate of requests for helicopter cover rejected by NPAS.

Norfolk’s average call response time in 2014/15 was 41 minutes – more than 13 minutes longer than the national average, and the seventh worst of NPAS’s 37 member forces.

The county’s force also had the third highest rate of declined requests – 19pc.

Suffolk, meanwhile, has a 34 minute response time and a 13pc rejection rate, the same as the current national average. Cambridgeshire call-outs are responded to within 36 minutes, although 14pc are rejected.

Mr Bett said he had particular concerns about the potential impact on our most easterly communities.

He added: “Under the latest NPAS proposals, swathes of West, East and North Norfolk would receive no coverage within 30 minutes at all.

“I know NPAS, like all areas of policing, is under huge financial pressure but we need to find a solution which allows Norfolk police to discharge their duties properly right across our county.”

He said he was continuing discussions with NPAS over its proposals and would be “pushing for the best outcome for Norfolk”.

Mr Passmore, meanwhile, said he was “sick and tired” of East Anglia getting the “fag end” of reviews into the use of resources. Having recently visited staff at Wattisham, he said the police helicopter was a “very important resource” for a “whole range of operations”.

He claimed an extra 15 minutes flight time would be added to all Suffolk call-outs, which he was “not prepared to put up with”.

“It’s a preposterous proposal,” he added.

The PCC said he would be investigating alternative options, including lobbying with other East Anglian forces for a locally situated base, or joining in partnership with the sea rescue service. NPAS currently operates from 20 bases across the country and serves 37 police forces, with recent additions including the Metropolitan Police Force – the UK’s largest police force.

In spite of the planned cuts, our figures also show how demand for the service is actually increasing.

The number of requests made nationally to NPAS increased from 54,114 in 2013/14 to 67,365 the following year – almost a 25pc rise.

Although NPAS has so far kept pace with demand – and even improved its level of acceptance last year – doubts have been raised over how this will remain possible with fewer bases.

NPAS response

NPAS’s accountable manager, Chief Supt Ian Whitehouse, said: “We are committed to delivering a service that responds to the threat, harm and risk identified to communities across England and Wales.

“This new deployment model, advocated by the National Police Chiefs Council will ensure that we use our aircraft in the most effective manner.

“As previously stated we regularly review performance with the requesting force to ensure the requests for service are met and NPAS is in a position to provide the service agreed upon.”

Chief Supt Whitehouse also rejected claims that the rise in demand over the past financial year was incompatible with the closures.

“NPAS closely monitors requests and calls for service and it is important to 
remember NPAS itself has been evolving over the past few years as more forces have joined and resources have been combined,” he said.

“In the long term we do anticipate a levelling out of demand but performance is closely monitored and scrutinised.”

A Home Office spokesman said: “The provision of police air support is an operational matter and has been the responsibility of the National Police Air Service since 2012.”

•Do you have a story for us to investigate? Contact Investigations Unit editor David Powles on 01603 772478 or email

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