Police split on merger option

Secret talks to merge Norfolk and Suffolk police in a bid to create an East Anglian superforce and put hundreds of extra officers on the frontline can be revealed for the first time today.

Secret talks to merge Norfolk and Suffolk police in a bid to create an East Anglian superforce and put hundreds of extra officers on the frontline can be revealed for the first time today.

The move would see the forces overseeing all policing in the region from a shared headquarters under the guidance of a single chief constable. Calls would be answered from a joint control room and all backroom functions would be combined.

The move, which could see Norfolk and Suffolk join within three years, would save up to �40m - the equivalent of between 800 and 1,200 new bobbies.

Chiefs at the two forces have been in behind-closed-doors discussions over the plan since early this year but they only came to light last night.

Bosses south of the border will meet on Friday to discuss the plans which would affect the jobs of thousands of staff who until now have been kept in the dark. Norfolk police had hoped to delay releasing the details to avoid unnecessarily worrying employees.

Although at present Suffolk are publically opposing the merger, Norfolk police authority chairman Stephen Bett said that the bleak financial climate would “force smaller constabularies to merge”. If Suffolk continues to resist the change, Norfolk would “look elsewhere” for forces to collaborate with.

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Simon Ash, chief constable of Suffolk, has prepared a detailed paper which outlines the discussions. In it he states the force: “Supports collaboration as a mean of jointly delivering services… it does not support the merging of the two policing areas in the foreseeable future.”

However, discussions are ongoing and chiefs in Norfolk remain convinced it is the way forward. Mr Bett, who has been involved in the talks alongside chief constable Ian McPherson, said: “For the sake of the police and the public, we cannot allow for this to not happen.”

He added: “Norfolk's position is simple - we are most interested in improving the delivery of frontline policing whilst cutting the cost to the public purse.

“We believe that, ultimately, larger strategic police forces - which can share back office costs and those of specialist services - will best achieve the twin objectives of delivering more for less cost.

“We will continue to support the collaborative efforts with our colleagues in Suffolk and elsewhere in the region.”

The move would be an extension of Norfolk's existing modernisation programme which has put 100 extra officers on the beat by combining three command units into one to cut out duplicated roles and bureaucracy.

The county is among the only forces in the country to increase officer numbers in recent years - Suffolk has slightly reduced the number on the frontline.

A joint panel of experts from both forces had been looking at ways in which the forces could work more closely. These talks followed the collapse of Home Office proposals to merge Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire police in 2006.

The forces have already created a joint major investigations team, witness protection unit and technical services team. This has resulted in an annual saving of �645,000. They are also working together to build new police investigation centres.

By examining this success, the panel established that the voluntary merger could save 14pc on existing budgets - which currently equal �257m between both forces.

Mr Bett said: “When the panel looked at it, it quickly became clear that we would be collaborating in more and more areas to the point where it would bring about much more substantial savings - and be of greater benefit to the public - if we merged.”

The two forces had been set to appoint their first joint officer - the first job of its kind in the country - by recruiting an assistant chief constable to oversee combined human resources.

However, that plan collapsed after a disagreement over how this would work, with Norfolk choosing to instead appoint their own man, former superintendant for the east of the county, Charlie Hall.

The Suffolk police report states that the force will continue to look at ways it can share functions with Norfolk police but asks authority members to send out a clear message opposing merger.