DAVID Parker, leader of Scottish Borders Council – one of six local authorities that fund Lothian and Borders Police – says he will support the retention of eight Scottish police forces until he is satisfied that accountability and control will remain in local hands if structural changes go ahead, writes Andrew Keddie.
In February, the minority SNP government at Holyrood launched a consultation on the future of policing, setting out three options: maintaining the status quo of eight forces, including Lothian and Borders; the establishment of a single Scotland-wide force; or a rationalised model of three or four forces.
Justice minister Kenny MacAskill favours a major revamp in a bid to improve services while addressing pressures on public spending.
“We acknowledge that some advocate retaining eight forces with greater collaboration between them to save money, but it is clear to us this would not provide the savings necessary, or the enhanced services to meet the challenges of the 21st century,” said Mr MacAskill in his preamble to the consultation document.
“We recognise there are arguments for this regional model, though there is uncertainty this would result in significant savings, service improvement and improved accountability. It is for those in favour of this option to demonstrate it would provide these.
“A single police force could provide the greatest flexibility to deploy resources, to provide all our communities with equal access to specialist policing and to ensure better responses to national threats such a terrorism, but questions remain about accountability as well as centralisation of services.”
Before the election, Labour and the Conservatives, now the main opposition parties, at Holyrood, agreed that the status quo was not an option. John Lamont, now re-elected for the Tories in Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire, described the current structure as “bureaucratic and costly”.
Councillor Parker said he had predicted last year that, as a result of public spending cuts, the party manifestos would contain proposals to cut the number of police forces in Scotland.
“I am not concerned about reorganisation as long as it is evidence-based and stands up to scrutiny,” Mr Parker said. “The other critical factor is that we need to ensure any change enshrines local accountability and if that was to happen, then whatever number of forces, a reorganisation would not matter.
“For instance, the Metropolitan Police in London has powerful borough commanders who are locally accountable and the system works well.
“The problem with the SNP proposals is that they concentrate too heavily on just cutting the number of forces and making financial savings.
“Nowhere in anything we have seen so far, do they set out what the local accountability model will be and how a new police structure will actually work.
“Having looked at the whole issue, three forces, based on east, west and north boundaries, would seem sensible to me with the crime profiles in these regions complementing such a set up.
“But whatever happens now that the SNP has swept to power, we need to ensure we retain local accountability and control and, until I am satisfied on that, I will be supporting the status quo.”
Meanwhile, Mr Parker has welcomed the SNP’s promised council tax freeze over the next five years. “We have many Borderers on fixed incomes or low pay and anything that can be done to lessen people’s financial burden in these difficult times is always welcome,” he said.
“I believe the freeze can be delivered so long as the Scottish Government continues to fund it and ensures that the financial conditions facing local authorities are as favourable as possible.”