Police force merger plan in tatters

PAUL HILL The Government's plan to merge county constabularies into regional super-forces lay in tatters last night after the police chiefs who were meant to pioneer the policy pulled out.

PAUL HILL

The Government's plan to merge county constabularies into regional super-forces lay in tatters last night after the police chiefs who were meant to pioneer the policy pulled out.

The Home Office revealed that the voluntary merger between forces in Lancashire and Cumbria had been called off after police chiefs and ministers failed to “resolve all the issues” - including how to match council tax rates in the two counties.

The collapse of that merger was the latest blow to Home Secretary John Reid and came as Norfolk police revealed that they would now try to recruit a new chief constable to replace their outgoing chief, Carole Howlett.

Mrs Howlett's retirement had been put on hold until Norfolk Constab-ulary's future - either remaining as a county force or merging with Suffolk and Cambridgeshire under a single regional chief - was agreed.

Ironically, proposals to create a single East Anglian police force had been welcomed in Norfolk, despite opposition in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk amid concerns about the cost.

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Ministers had argued that merging the country's 43 constabularies into 17 regional forces would help police to fight crime and cut costs.

It is understood the failure of the Government to agree to meet the “upfront” costs of amalgamation and help “equalise” council tax

rates led to yesterday's decision to drop the Lancashire and Cumbria merger.

The decision came just days after Lancashire's acting chief constable, Steve Finnigan, said a merger was “still the right option” for the policing in the North-West.

Last night, Stephen Bett, chairman of Norfolk Police Authority, said: “If the Home Office isn't going to put the money up-front, we were never going to do anything. And if the Treasury isn't going to fund mergers, it's a non-starter.”

But Mr Bett said he was concerned that, without making savings by merging, the financial future for Norfolk looked bleak.

“If we carry on with the funding formula that the Government has set out for us as a county force, by

2009-10 we are going to be in severe financial trouble - and I'm not at all sure what we are going to do.

“If we're not going to make the savings we were hoping for through amalgamation, where is the money going to come from?” he added.

Mr Bett said it had been decided at an informal meeting of the police authority yesterday to recruit a new chief constable in the light of advice from the Home Office.

“The problem we have is: who is going to apply knowing that the financial picture for the future is so uncertain?” he said.

But Gulshan Kayembe, who chairs Suffolk Police Authority, said Government thinking was “a bit muddled” and insisted: “The finances of police mergers have never added up. There are so many uncertainties, and it may be 10 to 15 years before we see any savings if mergers went ahead. It's never added up, and that's why we refused to agree to any kind of voluntary merger.”

The decision to scrap the Lancashire-Cumbria merger came barely a month after the Home Secretary announced that there would be no progress on merging forces before the Parliamentary summer recess.

Amid growing speculation that the Government wants to ditch the merger plans, Dr Reid said the issue “merits further and slower consideration”.

The House of Lords dealt a further blow to the merger plans a day later by amending a Bill to restrict the Home Secretary's power to force through mergers without the consent of county police authorities.

The Home Office declined last night to say what impact the Lancashire-Cumbria decision would have on other forces. But a spokesman said: “The police minister, Tony McNulty, met the chief constables and police authority chairmen from Lancashire and Cumbria this morning and explained to them that it had not been possible to resolve all the issues surrounding their proposed merger in a way that would be suitable to them.

“The two forces have decided on that basis not to proceed with their voluntary merger.”

The chairman of Cambridgeshire Police Authority was unavailable for comment.