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MPs in a state over £8.5bn plan to close disused West Midlands police stations

MPs in a state over £8.5bn plan to close disused West Midlands police stations

🕔05.Oct 2015

A move by West Midlands Police to save £8.5 billion by closing 28 buildings has resulted in a storm of opposition, with both Labour and Tory MPs railing against the “loss of police stations”. Yet none of the buildings at risk is open to the public and cannot be described truthfully as police stations, writes Paul Dale.

You’d think it was the end of the policing world as we know it, or at the very least an open invitation for criminals to parade through the streets carrying bags marked swag on their backs.

An announcement that West Midlands police is considering closing 28 buildings, 13 of them former police stations but no longer in use, others which are administrative buildings or used for storage, prompted howls of anguish from MPs.

Labour blamed the Tory Government cuts for forcing the hand of the party’s Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson. Tories blamed Labour incompetence and claimed that Labour’s Mr Jamieson was needlessly closing down police stations while sitting on millions of pounds in cash reserves that could be used to keep them open.

The truth is that WMP has to find £130 million in savings by 2020 to cope with continuing cuts in police grant resulting from the Chancellor’s austerity approach to public spending. Closing and selling off buildings that are no longer in public use, most people might think, is quite a good idea and preferable to the other option: cutting front line policing budgets.

MPs, though, have gone out of their way to suggest that police stations are closing and that local communities are less safe as a result.

Jack Dromey, shadow policing minister and Erdington MP told the Birmingham Mail:

Communities will be dismayed by the loss of their local police stations.

The blame lies not with West Midlands Police, which has prioritised front line policing above buildings in an effort to keep officers on the street.

Mr Dromey did not comment on a speech at the Labour conference by shadow home secretary Andy Burnham in which Mr Burnham said he thought police forces could find cuts of up to 10 per cent in their budgets easily enough.

Shabana Mahmood, Labour MP for Ladywood, seems to be under the impression that a police station is to close in the Jewellery Quarter and warned of “deep concern about the proposal”, even though there is no such proposal because none of the buildings scheduled for closure is an active police station.

Ian Austin, Labour MP for Dudley North said it would be “completely unacceptable for the police not to have officers based in the town”, as if WMP had a plan to withdraw completely from Dudley.

Julian Knight, Conservative MP for Solihull, described the closure of “Shirley police station” as “disturbing and upsetting”, even though the building has been closed to the public for some time. The closure would affect public confidence because the police would no longer have a presence in the town, he claimed.

The Police Federation weighed into the debate, claiming closing the 28 buildings would take the police “further away from the communities they serve” and would knock public confidence.

The row indicates clearly the difficult path facing Mr Jamieson as he attempts to modernise West Midlands Police, make the force fit to tackle a rapidly changing pattern of criminal activity, and cope with drastically reduced budgets. Almost any change he proposes will be opposed by the police establishment and, inevitably, by MPs.

West Midlands Police says it is committed that any changes to its buildings portfolio will “not impact adversely on services”, although it will be difficult to sell that idea to the public and MPs. Putting it bluntly, there are many more building closures to come.

The current estate of 124 buildings costs £16 million a year to run and moving out of the additional 28 buildings will reduce the overall running costs by a further £1.3 million.

A source described most of the buildings due to close as “places where officers sit in to do paperwork”.

In the proposals being presented to the PCC, the force is outlining plans to reduce the estate further over the next five years. Based on average building size this will equate to approximately 68 buildings at a running cost of around £9 million per year.

Assistant chief constable Michele Larmour said:

Many of these sites have been part of the police estate for a number of years and as such, we understand local communities may feel a connection to specific buildings. However many of our buildings have high running costs, are poorly located and are not fit for future operational purposes.

It is vital we continue to question how much we invest in our estate and continue to maximise the service we provide to our communities. None of these sites are open to the public and it’s important to remember policing is about people not buildings.

Through the WMP2020 programme, the force is introducing the latest technology to officers to help in the fight against crime.

The WMP2020 team are developing a mobile platform and new apps which will allow officers to work more dynamically on the streets – saving them having to go back and forth to stations.

Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson said:

As the cuts continue to bite we are faced with some really tough decisions. The Government has consistently continued to disproportionately cut funding in the West Midlands and the challenge is how we maintain the service that the public comes into contact with.

A spokesman for Mr Jamieson rejected claims that the force was sitting on a huge pile of unspent cash reserves, or that a decision to buy the Lloyd House headquarters in Birmingham for £18 million represented a waste of money.

He said:

The purchase of Lloyd House allows the force to rationalise its city centre estate and yield large savings by eliminating expensive city centre rents saving nearly £3 million a year.

The occupancy of Lloyd House will be almost doubled from 850 to about 1500.  A third of the refurbishment cost is maintenance that would have had to be done anyway.  Not counting the maintenance bill that we would have had to pay anyway, the refurbishment will pay for itself in seven years, as well as relieving pressure on the revenue budget.

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