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Police commissioners share 'copter concerns

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: December 12, 2012

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THE police commissioners of both South Wales and Dyfed-Powys have raised serious concerns about losing their force helicopters.

The UK Government scheme will see all forces in Wales and England axing their helicopters in favour of having access to a fleet of aircraft managed by the National Police Air Service (NPAS).

The project was launched in October with the first 11 forces joining — South Wales and Dyfed-Powys are due to lose their choppers in July next year.

South Wales Police's Labour commissioner, Alun Michael, said the current level of service from the force helicopter — which it shares with Gwent — was "outstanding", and that there was no guarantee the new system could match it.

He said: "What's the point of nationalising the service if the change doesn't deliver air support that is effective and fit for purpose?

"The police helicopter is an important tool we have in fighting crime and keeping our communities safe. To have a downgraded system at a greater cost would have a detrimental impact when the whole reasoning given by the government for creating police and crime commissioners was to move decision making from Whitehall to a local and accountable commissioner.

"I will work closely with the chief constable to ensure that we get the best possible service."

Earlier this year the Evening Post saw a copy of a report into the NPAS prepared for the now defunct South Wales Police Authority – which was never made public ‑ which raised serious questions about the level of service the new arrangements would provide.It warned that the nearest 24-hour air base would be in Birmingham, that under the NPAS the number of flying hours for the South Wales chopper would be cut from the current 708 per year to 650, and that any benefit in having access to a national network of aircraft would likely be eroded by increased transit time from its bases and the consequent reduced time on the scene of an incident.It also said that no details had been provided about the supposed cash savings from the project, and warned that “what is clear is that South Wales Police / Gwent could potentially be paying more money for a reduced service”.The report concluded and that there was a “high potential” that the communities would “suffer service degradation in comparison to existing levels.”

Under the NPAS, the number of police air bases is being slashed from 32 to 23, with the number of helicopters being cut from 33 to 25.

South Wales and Dyfed-Powys — geographically the biggest force in Wales and England — will be part of the South Western region of the service which also includes the Gwent, Devon and Cornwall, Dorset, Avon and Somerset and Gloucestershire forces.

The region will have operational bases in Bournemouth, Exeter, Filton in Gloucestershire, Pembrey, and St Athan.

It is proposed that Dyfed-Powys will also have access to a light aircraft for some duties.

The Dyfed-Powys Police commissioner, Conservative Christopher Salmon, said he was in favour of the national service "in principle", but that wanted to keep his force's helicopter. He said: "I want to make it clear that I want to retain our helicopter.

"It has a number of significant advantages over a fixed-wing aircraft its ability to hover, land and carry specialist police officers and or casualties. These capabilities are vital to provide adequate emergency service air support."

He added that he had asked the NPAS to reconsider its plans. The Association of Chief Police Officers say the NPAS will offer a "borderless service" with improved coverage and will save £15m.

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