Last week the NPAS (National police air service) announced that over the next two years, 10 police helicopter bases would be closing the hanger door for a final time. The implications are grave on many levels, and are of a direct result of reductions to finances of around 37% since 2012.
When a proposition is put to the police, that something that they consider critical is about to be reduced but 'will be more efficient' those who actually need and use the service are understandably sceptical.
Back in 2012 this was exactly the case with police helicopters, a business plan, reached the conclusion that pooling helicopters under one organisation and placing them at number of strategic bases was much 'smarter' and of course cheaper than forces operating their own aircraft. Don't forget this 'new' efficient 'business plan' preceded a case made by all policing area's a few years earlier supporting all 30 police air support bases to remain!
The job of running the new service was handed to West Yorkshire Police and most Chief Constables across the country duly signed up to the new 'National Police Air Service' - NPAS and handed over their helicopters.
Many Chiefs had reservations of course that they wouldn't see the police helicopters nearly as much - especially the forces further from the bright lights and big cities. NPAS reassured the Chiefs that the new 23 bases would make sure everyone was covered as well as they were now during NPAS peak times - meaning for 10hrs a day! The other 14hrs mostly during the night (when serious crime occurs) it'll be a reduced service with a handful of helicopters covering the whole country.
Police Chiefs signed on the line and handed over pilots, crews, and helicopters and submitted yearly amounts of money. This amounted to several hundred thousand pounds, to nearly £2million per year to NPAS in return for an airtime deal where you pay for so many hours of flying in your force for catching criminals and searching for vulnerable missing persons etc.
Now we've just had NPAS's first full financial year and they've been hit with finding efficiency savings to the tune of 37%. That's 23% in 2012 and now a further 14%. The reality of this is that they now simply can't deliver what the individual police forces signed up to. They've agonised over many penny pinching schemes, but the reality of the level of cuts is the dropping of the bombshell that they'll have to close bases and lose helicopters, the very opposite of the undertaking that NPAS promised to deliver back in the days of delivering a more 'efficient and effective service' .
In the light of the latest cuts NPAS produced a map of the UK showing a multitude of blue circles representing their target 20 minute flight times from their home bases to priority calls that they've agreed with police forces. The 'practitioners' have produced their own, based on experience and reality.
The map has some shocking features, namely a total lack of helicopter coverage for 'priority' calls across huge swathes of the country. Cumbria and most of Lancashire has virtually no police helicopter cover with the planned base closure at Warton for example.
Wales and East Anglia, and the North East of England are dealt similar blows with no police helicopter cover to meet the priority target at all.
The reduced number of bases under the new NPAS model is focused on the denser populated cities and anywhere outside of those areas is wildernesses as far as policing from the skies are concerned. Helicopters have a limited amount of fuel and flying over any distance seriously depletes their ability to stay overhead and actually do the task they were called up for, in reality cancelling out their effectiveness and value for money.
The blame for this mess lies fairly and squarely at the door of the Home Office, they have openly reneged on a proposition for border-less police helicopter service by slashing its funding and actually forcing closures. Indeed If they'd been transparent and honest about this at the start, many forces may have considered not signing up to NPAS in the first place.
The Minister for policing, Mike Penning as you would expect has responded with the usual wretched rhetoric about slickness and efficiency but it simply won't wash with the public who live in the huge swathes of the country like the North East and North West now pretty much abandoned by NPAS.
At least Penning has had the decency to refrain from the government's pathetic mantra of 'maintaining front-line policing' because it's now become laughably implausible.
The brave men and women who operate our NPAS cover so many front-line duties - pursuit safety, suspect containment, assisting 999 services, moving resources inc armed officers, finding missing persons, intelligence gathering and public order duty and demonstrations to name a few vital roles. The value of our police helicopters is immeasurable.
What the public should be asking now from their PCC's and MP's is who exactly is holding this government to account for their safety?
Cutting police helicopters is a charter for criminals and real worry for police on the ground that search for vulnerable missing persons on a daily basis. Criminals will act with impunity outside of the helicopter coverage and escape into the night and the lives of the missing and vulnerable will be lost where every minute counts. Meanwhile back in their cosy offices in the Home Office, they will pat themselves on the back for another job well done.
All images: Supplied by Mike Pannett