Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The urge to amalgamate

Amidst a Scottish legislative programme consisting of 15 Bills, a single policy caught the media’s attention. Alex Salmond announced plans for the creation of a single Scottish police force and fire and emergency service. This would amalgamate today’s eight police forces and eight fire services into one national body for each.

The push for amalgamation is not peculiar to the SNP, to Scotland or to the current climate of budget constraints. The prospect of reducing the number of Scottish forces was raised earlier in the year, and again in 2010.

South of the border, moves to rationalise police forces in England and Wales were announced by Charles Clarke on 6 February 2006, only to meet with stiff local and organisational opposition. The plans were eventually shelved in August 2006, but only after £11.5m was spent by police forces on planning.

Policing is an especially emotive issue, and one in which local loyalties and democratic accountability trumps the logic of cost savings, scale and operational efficiency. The SNP move will be seen as a step forward in forging a separate Scottish identity – the emergency forces united under the saltire. Such a move in England would create howls of protest and fear of a centralised police state.

The British system bucks the European trend of having national police organisations. France has la police nationale, Germany, the Bundeskriminalamt and Italy, the Carabinieri. Closer to home, Ireland’s national police service, An Garda Síochána, is the same from Malin to Mizen. Even the USA, fiercely defensive of states’ rights and home of the municipal police force, has the FBI. Why does the UK have such an expensive array of police forces? And what is the historical context for amalgamation?

Although night watches and guardians of the peace were in existence long before the 19th century, modern policing in the UK began with London’s Metropolitan Police. In 1829, Robert Peel introduced the Metropolitan Police Act and London’s police force (along with the affectionate nickname of ‘Bobbies’) was born.

The Municipal Corporations Act 1835 along with the Rural Constabulary Act 1839 and the County Police Act 1840 allowed boroughs and counties to create their own police forces. With the County and Borough Police Act 1856 this was made mandatory (and was mirrored in Scotland by the General Police Act (Scotland) 1857).  By 1860, there were around 200 separate police forces, and by 1900 this had grown to 243 forces.

The pressure for consolidation and amalgamation has existed almost since the inception of modern policing. It was the logical solution to stretched police resources and duplication of effort, especially when the smallest historic boroughs and counties had their own separate forces.

Provisions in the County Police Act 1840 permitted voluntary amalgamations. It facilitated the demise of South Molton Borough Police (merged into Devon Constabulary in 1877), Launceston Borough Police (amalgamated in 1883 with Cornwall Constabulary) and Chipping Norton Borough Police (into Oxfordshire Constabulary). Given these boroughs had populations of roughly 16,800, 3,600 and 18,000 respectively at the time of amalgamation, it is hard to see how they could justify separate forces (although the existence of an independent Chipping Norton police could have added spice to the media storm around the Chipping Norton set).
Another wave of consolidations came under the auspices of the Local Government Act 1888 which forced amalgamation for towns with populations of less than 10,000. Deal, Bideford, Falmoth and Tenterden, along with 12 other forces, merged into their respective county constabularies at this time.

A further batch of small forces would be rationalised under the Defence (Amalgamation of Police Forces) Regulations 1942. This act focused on Kent for obvious civil defence purposes, and saw Dover, Folkestone, Maidstone, Margate, Rochester, Tunbridge Wells and Ramsgate lose their independent police forces.

The first wholesale, centralised and planned consolidation came with the Police Act 1946. This reduced the number of constabularies to 131 and saw the demise of the splendidly named Liberty of Peterborough Constabulary and the pleasantly obscure Chepping Wycombe Borough Police.

Serious rationalisation would come under the Police Act 1964, which dramatically reduced the number of forces to 49. This saw the first major protests against forced amalgamations, led by the still infant Luton Borough Police. Luton’s separate police force had only come into existence on 1 April 1964, and it was almost immediately threatened with forced amalgamation into Bedfordshire Constabulary. The campaign eventually led to Luton serving a High Court writ on Henry Brooke, the Home Secretary.

All vestiges of smaller, historic county forces would be swept away alongside local government reform in the Local Government Act 1972, with Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds, Hull and Bradford losing their independent police forces. A similar rationalisation saw Scottish constabularies reduce from 20 city and county based forces to the eight that are currently facing merger.

Although these reforms left police forces in the same shape as we see today, calls for rationalisation did not disappear. In 1981 the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, James Anderton, called for 10 regional police forces across England and Wales.

The rationalisation of territorial police forces has been accompanied by the demise of a vast array of special forces, covering the railways, canals, docks, rivers, airports, parks, markets, cathedrals and even Eton College. Some have survived, including constabularies for the City of London’s Markets, Cambridge University (Oxford’s force, populary known the Bulldogs, was disbanded in 2003), Salisbury Cathedral and York Minster.

The only anomaly in the history of multiple police forces has been the position of Northern Ireland. The Royal Ulster Constabulary remained as the single police force for the north of Ireland following partition in 1922. It was the remnant of the Royal Irish Constabulary that had previously policed the whole island (with the exception of Dublin’s city constabulary). On 4 November 2001 the RUC became the Police Service of Northern Ireland as part of the Good Friday Agreement. With the RUC’s demise one of the bitterest grievances of northern Irish Catholics was tackled.  

Policing in the UK has moved a long way from nearly 250 separate territorial forces and a medley of special forces for everything from cathedrals to markets, ports to power stations. There are now just 39 territorial forces in England, 4 in Wales, 8 in Scotland and one in Northern Ireland and four principal ‘special police forces’ (the British Transport Police, Ministry of Defence Police, Civil Nuclear Constabulary and the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency).

Does the seemingly relentless move to consolidation, amalgamation and merger signal the death of local policing? How does it fit in with the Coalition government’s localism agenda? And, in an age of austerity and severe budget cuts, can we afford to ignore the cost savings, efficiency gains and eradication of duplication that larger forces may bring?  

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