Sep 9 2011 by Johnathon Menzies, Stirling Observer Friday
JUSTICE Secretary Kenny MacAskill has hinted Stirling could play a key role in the future of a nationalised police force.
The Scottish Government minister was speaking in Bridge of Allan yesterday (Thursday) ahead of addressing Holyrood on plans to reduce the number of police forces and fire services in the country from eight to one.
Mr MacAskill discussed the controversial blueprint, the result of a lengthy consultation process, with Central Scotland Police Chief Constable Kevin Smith at the local constabulary’s Henderson Street base.
Although guarded, the politician said: “I’ve previously stated that I wouldn’t want any national police headquarters to be situated in Edinburgh or Glasgow.
“We already have a fantastic training facility near Stirling at Tulliallan, but we’ll see. All our existing offices will have to be looked at, and future uses for them explored.
“It may well be that some of them will possibly be utilised for other things, but these things take time.”
Mr MacAskill continued: “Maintaining a local policing presence is fundamental to what we’re trying to do. But if we don’t change the way we operate then we won’t be able to do that anymore.
“The last time changes were implemented to Scotland’s police forces, back in 1975, the only thing that was different was the uniform – it will be the same this time too.
“The cap badge will change, but officers will continue to serve within the community and be held accountable to a locally-elected board.
“At the moment we have eight versions of the same thing and we can’t afford to do that any longer.
“As the First Minister said earlier this week, we want to keep bobbies, not maintain boundaries.
“We also want every area of Scotland to have equal access to the same specialist services.”
Chief Constable Smith was quick to reassure the region’s residents that locally-based officers will remain at the heart of the sweeping reforms.
But he refused to be drawn on where he would like to see the streamlined police force located.
“Deciding where the new headquarters will be has to be thoroughly thought through by everyone involved,” he told the Observer.
“There’s a lot more to consider than just what my personal preference would be. It has to be cost effective and accessible to everyone. There’s eight existing forces who all want to make sure they have a large input into the new set-up.”
He added: “It’s my honestly held belief that these changes will make little or no difference to community policing here.
“There will still be local officers and local stations, and a highly-visible presence – that’s something that’s been in the DNA of the police service for generations.
“We will continue to replicate our successful crime prevention initiatives. I’m very confident a lot of the good things we are doing here will be incorporated into the single national policing model.
“But we need to make sure we’re as effective and efficient as possible going forward. We don’t need eight sets of the same infrastructure. The nationwide model also gives us greater access to specialist services, such as counter-terrorism squads.”
Mr MacAskill also visited Central Scotland Fire and Rescue Service headquarters in Falkirk.
Chief Fire Officer, Kenneth Taylor, said: “We’re concerned that the government’s outline case in favour of the single service doesn’t provide sufficient detail to substantiate claims that it will be more efficient and cost effective.
“Our primary concern remains the potential for a diminished knowledge of local concerns and priorities, which would result in an adverse impact on local democracy.
“However, our aim now will be to ensure that the service and its personnel are at the heart of the many workstreams that will follow with immediate effect.
“The new structures must continue to deliver on the many positive gains that our service has achieved in recent years.
“The public have come to expect a high level of service from our staff – be that in emergency response mode or in the many preventative programmes we’re involved with – that must not be allowed to diminish.”
Mr Taylor also expressed concerns over a potential loss of local accountability, and the seemingly uncertain timescale in which the impending changes are to be implemented.
Stirling MP Anne McGuire admitted “the devil will be in the detail” as the dual restructuring plans gather pace.
She continued: “We have to focus on the front line to protect services, but it’s vital these mergers do not reduce the number of police and emergency workers that we currently rely on in Stirling.
“I can support the changes if it means we can keep officers on the street and firefighters a mere phone call away – but the SNP government has already cut 30 police support staff from Central Scotland Police this year alone.
“I will regret the apparent loss of a direct communication with a locally-based chief constable, who is the primary decision-maker and who has ultimate responsibility for operational decisions.”