Police poised to lose the force helicopter’s only Suffolk base

Suffolk's police helicopter. Picture: Gary Stedman.

Suffolk's police helicopter. Picture: Gary Stedman. - Credit: citizenside.com

Suffolk's police helicopter base is closing, casting the future of the force's aerial operation into doubt.

The National Police Air Service (NPAS) yesterday confirmed plans to close 10 of its bases across the country, including Wattisham Airfield, as part of cost-cutting measures.

When the closure takes effect during the 2016/17 financial year, Boreham, near Chelmsford, will become Suffolk's nearest base.

It means pilots will have to travel further to support the county's officers and Suffolk Constabulary will be competing against more forces for the use of the helicopter, raising fears it will receive a 'second-rate service'.

Suffolk's Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Tim Passmore has previously questioned NPAS's value for money, after it was revealed the force helicopter flew only half its allocated flying hours in 2013/14, despite costing £800,000.

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He has reacted to the latest announcement with more disappointment and said he will hold urgent talks with the county's Chief Constable Douglas Paxton to discuss the future of the service and possible alternative arrangements.

'I'm not sure the current NPAS arrangement has been terribly successful and this certainly raises questions about whether it represents good value for money for the Suffolk taxpayer,' he added.

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'I've made it absolutely clear we are not paying the sorts of sums that we paid last year for the hours that we were not using.

'One thing that's certain is we will continue to keep Suffolk safe but when it comes to big ticket items we need to be sure they deliver what they need to deliver for the community and if not, we need to be asking question about our funding for it.'

With neighbouring forces competing for the helicopters' use, Mr Passmore added that if Suffolk did remain a member of NPAS, he would not tolerate the county being treated as a 'poor relation' or receiving a 'second-class service'.

Suffolk Police Federation has also responded to the announcement with concern.

Federation secretary Mick Richardson said the force had seen its access to the helicopter decline since it went under the shared NPAS system and expected it to reduce further following the cuts.

'I don't even know if it's going to be worth paying for at all,' he added.

'You cannot expect to keep cutting funding and expect the service to stay the same.'

NPAS said the service needed to find 'substantial' financial savings of 14% over the next three years on top of the 23% cuts already made.

The changes will move the service to a 15-base model and is set to leave 19 helicopters and four fixed-wing aircraft in operation across the country. There are currently 23 aircraft in the NPAS fleet.

NPAS chairman Mark Burns-Williamson said: 'It has not been an easy decision to move to a 15-base model but these are the sort of difficult decisions that have to be taken with the economic climate we are all operating in.

'The board have been assured that the performance of NPAS will be maintained in line with the needs of the forces and PCCs we serve as we move to a truly borderless tasking of the national air service, the board will be robustly monitoring this transition and performance to ensure an effective and efficient service is delivered through this unique national collaboration.'

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