Police services in parts of the isles could be amalgamated with other “blue light” organisations to help save costs, councillors from across the Highlands and Islands were told this week.
Northern Constabulary’s chief constable Ian Latimer said the force had “hard choices” to make over the next two years in the face of an ever-tightening spending squeeze when he visited Shetland on Tuesday.
However, he said frontline services needed to be protected to ensure rural communities maintained the strong police presence they had come to expect.
He did not rule out the closure of smaller police stations in future years, but said the force was keen to invest in staff. He announced plans to recruit 24 new officers across the force area, which will help maintain levels at around 800.
It is hoped the new instalments will help Northern capitalise on an already impressive 12 per cent reduction in crime across the Highlands and Islands.
In Shetland there has been a detection rate of just over 67 per cent between 1st January and 31st March this year. Overall crime in the isles has fallen by 4.5 per cent.
The positive trend comes as good news to Mr Latimer, who used his visit to the isles for a meeting of the Northern Joint Police Board in the Town Hall as a platform to announce he would retire from the force next March after 10 years in the job.
A report before the board said an efficiency plan to protect frontline services had resulted in a 2010/11 budget of £52.026m – down from 2009/10’s budget estimate of £59.360m.
Mr Latimer said a “worst case scenario” could see the force’s revenue budget cut by seven per cent – or £3.6m – during 2011/12.
“There is considerable uncertainty over what our budget allocation is going to be as we look forward,” he said.
South Mainland councillor Allison Duncan asked whether the cuts would result in police station closures in the isles.
Mr Latimer said proposals for shared services may be brought forward as part of the force’s best value review programme, however he insisted there was “no hit-list” currently in place.
He said 85 per cent of the force’s expenditure is in staff. While there was “still uncertainty” over where savings would be made, he said he knew what he would choose between keeping staff or ensuring buildings were kept open.
“There is little point having a building with a ‘police’ sign on it that doesn’t do anything,” he said.
North Mainland member Alistair Cooper said emergency services needed to share buildings and facilities in places like Shetland.
He said there was a strong need for the police board to “link in” with the local authority capital programme.
“You can’t build a new station at Whalsay but we have a new fire station going up there,” he said. “There needs to be greater integration between the blue-light services.”
That idea was roundly welcomed by the Highland councillors, with one citing shared police premises with the Scottish Ambulance Service in Lairg as a successful venture.
Speaking after the meeting Mr Latimer cited Brae as an example where discussions with the council had been carried out which could prove beneficial.
“We’re looking at Brae in terms of wanting to maintain a police presence there, where perhaps the council has got plans to build a new service point. We were intending initially, with the police board, to put some capital funding into the new station.
“It would appear a very sensible option that would perhaps allow us to keep some police officers on the island would be to go to a joint service point.”
The efficiency savings had helped lead to a decision to recruit an additional 24 officers across the force area.
Would, asked councillor Duncan, any of those new recruits be coming to the isles?
Mr Latimer said the decision to recruit had been brought about by a higher than expected number of retiral, transfers and departures.
He said there had been only 650 officers at Northern when he started in his role in 2001.
“You have to remember we’re still in a stronger position both in Shetland and elsewhere across the force area.”
Meanwhile, special constables could be used to good effect as a cost-effective way of maintaining a police presence.
“We’ve always had a very positive approach to the use of the special constabulary,” said Mr Latimer.
“We’ve always had in Scotland one of the highest – if not the highest – in terms of the number of special constabulary officers available to us.”
A key factor impacting on costs was the ever-rising cost of fuel.
One councillor, speaking via video-link from Inverness, wondered if some political pressure could be brought to bear to have prices brought down.
Mr Latimer said fuel prices had become a “burden” for the force.
However he insisted communities need not fear a reduction in service because of high pump prices.
“The fuel costs in rural communities and in island communities in particular mean that, as a police force, we have an extra burden that perhaps other police forces don’t.
“My view is that, whilst we look at ways of squeezing down those costs in terms of ways of gaining access to fuel, I am not interested in reducing operational mileage of vehicles.
“It’s vitally important that, where officers need to respond to incidents, where they need to be visible in communities, they shouldn’t be constrained by how much petrol or diesel they are allowed to put in their vehicles. That is one of the last things I would consider,” he said.
Speaking after the meeting Shetland’s area commander, chief inspector David Bushell said any cuts would have to be carefully examined before they were implemented.
He welcomed the idea of shared facilities with other agencies. “The potential budget cuts and savings that could be on the horizon have to be looked at in quite close detail but certainly for this area command, we have to retain the ability to function effectively, and I would be keen to keep any reduction to a minimum.
“The service we are providing now we fully intend to continue with that service in the future.”