PROPOSALs for a single police force to serve the whole of Scotland have been met with caution in the Borders.
Last week Justice Secretary Kenny Mackaskill outlined plans for major Scottish policing reforms - a move to a single police force topping the agenda.
An alternative to this was also mooted which would see the number of forces nationwide cut from eight to as few as three with another option being the adoption of a regional structure with fewer boards.
The plans form part of a consultation that will get under way next month and already there has been a real difference of opinion at locallevel.
With the total Scottish Government annual budget facing a cut of about £1bn, ministers stressed that maintaining the current set-up was not an option.
But South of Scotland List MSP Jim Hume (Lib Dem) and his colleague Euan Robson have both expressed concerns that establishing a sole police force would have negative repercussions for the Borders.
Mr Hume said there was no evidence to suggest that unifying Scotland’s police forces would have a positive outcome and commented: “I simply cannot see how a centralised police quango would listen to an area like the South of Scotland. Policing capacity would be diverted from the region, without question.
“There has been no clear reason given by any of the supporters why moving towards a single Scottish police force will improve policing or make our streets safer.”
Echoing these sentiments, Euan Robson said that the Borders was well served by the police at present but should the Justice Secretary’s plans come into fruition, local cuts would be inevitable.
“The real risk for us in the Borders will be the drip, drip, drip of funding running away to the central belt,” he added.
MSP for Roxburgh and Berwickshire John Lamont said: “The Scottish Conservatives can be proud of our record in supporting the police. There are 1000 extra police officers in Scotland today thanks to our budget negotiations with the Scottish Government.
“Over the next few years we want to see a major reform which will help provide what the public wants and needs: a visible, local police presence.
“The current structure of policing in Scotland is bureaucratic and costly. It is also very often unresponsive to the needs of local communities, particularly in the more rural and remote parts of our country. To the general public, Police Boards have become weak, invisible and unaccountable.
“We should have a system of policing which involves local residents, listens to their views and engage their help in the fight against crime.
“We therefore propose to introduce directly elected local police commissioners. These directly elected commissioners would serve on a new National Police Commission overseeing the national police force. Whilst the Chief Constable would remain operationally independent, the Commissioners would hold the local police to account and nationally provide strategic direction as well as provide a check against the national body being politicised by the government of the day.
“Although independent of the local councils, the elected Police Commissioners would work alongside their local authority, NHS and education bodies and voluntary groups to ensure effective partnership working. Critically, the local Commissioner will be responsible for setting the local area’s annual target crime reduction rate.”
Like many other Chief Constables in rural forces areas, Lothian and Borders Chief Constable David Strang said it was important that all possible options were explored in the interests of the communities the police serve.
Speaking in his role as Executive Vice President of the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, Chief Constable Strang said:
“Before any decisions in relation to reform can be made, it is essential that there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the proposed changes will ultimately deliver better value for money and allow for the high standard of service delivery to continue.
“It is clear that the financial pressures we are facing mean that we need to operate differently and Scotland’s Chief Officers are unanimous in supporting reform which will ensure the continued delivery of effective local and national policing.
“We will continue to take part in the debate and consultation on the future of Scottish policing but ensuring a high standard of service for our communities is our priority. It is vital that we take the time to consider the options and make the right decisions which are in the interests of our communities.”
The Police weren’t the only emergency service put under the microscope, Kenny MacAskill also argued the case for a single Fire and Rescue Service, adding that this would be best at “reducing unnecessary duplication and cost making sure maximum funding is channelled to the front line.”
Jimmy Campbell, Chief Fire Officer at Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue Service said he welcomed the Goverment’s announcement of a consultation of the restructuring of fire services, which he thought was inevitable “in the face of swingeing financial budget cuts facing the public sector.”
He commented: “I believe we must remain locally accountable to the communities we serve. The Service is at the heart of our communities.
“We have been hugely successful in bringing down fire deaths and injuries and we are able to do this through our understanding of local needs and being held accountable at the point of service. Providing we don’t lose this local accountability there is no reason why we can’t design a Service that removes the duplication and inefficiencies that are an inherent part of the current set up.
“This approach is also consistent with the planning that has been done by our local Fire and Rescue Board which has also accepted that restructure in some form will be necessary.”