Theresa May has strongly rejected calls for compulsory mergers among the 43 police forces across England and Wales, saying “superforces” would sacrifice local identity and accountability.
The home secretary told the annual conference of the Police Superintendents' Association that the merger of eight forces in Scotland two years ago had already cost £112m more than planned and that collaboration projects could deliver all the intended benefits of bigger forces.
May told the police superintendents that they would have to expect further rounds of spending cuts after next year's general election and that these could only be delivered by a further programme of reform. She said those reforms should include going “further and faster” in opening up the senior ranks of the police to people from different backgrounds as well as further integration of the three emergency services and new digital approaches, such as body-worn video.
In particular, she praised a Police First scheme put forward by two Metropolitan police frontline officers to attract bright young graduates into policing.
The home secretary's firm rejection of police force mergers in England and Wales follows a renewed call on Monday, from chief superintendent Irene Curtis, the superintendents' president, that there were “too many chief constables and too many police and crime commissioners”. She argued that the 43-force structure led to millions of pounds being wasted every year.
Lord Stevens, the former Metropolitan police commissioner, who chaired a commission on policing set up by Labour, argued that the 43-force structure was untenable and set out a list of alternatives including a single national police or reducing them to 10 regional “superforces”.
The home secretary said she had always been willing to consider plans for voluntary mergers between forces, but not a single chief constable or police and crime commissioner had come forward with such a proposal in the last four years. “In fact the opposite is true. Chief constables and police and crime commissioners are demonstrating that all the perceived benefits of mergers are possible without sacrificing local accountability and identity.”
She cited as an example a “groundbreaking collaboration” between the West Mercia and Warwickshire forces, which allowed them to pool all their resources below the level of deputy chief constable and share investigations, back offices, neighbourhood policing and have even opened a joint police and fire station in Bromsgrove.
She said this type of collaboration, which was being followed around England and Wales, was the “model for police reform in the future” with common systems, shared procurement and integration with other emergency services leading to substantial cost savings: “The only thing left on the table is the loss of local identity and accountability,” she said.
May cited the example of Police Scotland, saying the merger of the eight forces was meant to drive efficiencies worth £1bn by 2026 but after six months auditors were already warning of £112m overruns in merger costs.
“Of course these cost overruns and complications should not come as a surprise. When Charles Clarke was home secretary in 2006, Labour's proposal to create 24 so-called superforces was dropped after opposition to the half a billion transition costs and the removal of local policing …The evidence is clear – big, top-down restructure is simply not the answer.”
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