Leighton Andrews AM, Minister for Public Services
I would like to update Members on action taken following the short debate on Police Helicopters on 7 July 2015.
Members will recall that the National Police Air Service (NPAS) confirmed the need to find substantial financial savings over the next three years and on Friday 20 February 2015, the NPAS confirmed its plans to move to a 15-base model across England and Wales. The result of this will be the closure of two bases in Wales.
During the debate I committed to write to the Home Secretary and to Chief Superintendent Ian Whitehouse, the Accountable Manager of the NPAS, advising them of Members’ concerns over the proposed closure of the helicopter bases in Rhuddlan and Pembrey.
In my letter I queried the ability of the new, reduced service to provide the necessary support in Wales, particularly in the more rural areas of Dyfed-Powys, and also set out the concerns that have been raised that the terrain in rural Wales is not suitable for the proposed fixed-wing aircraft.
My letter to the Home Secretary was answered by the Rt Hon Mike Penning MP, Minister of State for Policing on 14 September. In his response, Mr Penning indicated that responsibility for police air support lay with the NPAS in line with the UK Government’s wider policy on policing. He also said that the NPAS believes that the operating model will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the service nationally.
Chief Superintendent Whitehouse responded to my letter on 27 July. The Chief Superintendent understands the disappointment that the new agreement does not include a base at Pembrey. However, he set out what he believes will be significant benefits that will be achieved when Dyfed-Powys joined the NPAS. He confirmed, that air support availability will move from 12 to 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In addition, by siting an EC145 helicopter at Hawarden, the NPAS will be able to provide the region with the most powerful helicopters in their fleet, providing increased performance and the ability, if required, to be reconfigured to carry additional passengers.
I am aware that this situation is being very closely monitored by Chief Constable Simon Prince of Dyfed-Powys Police. On 10 July 2015, he met with Members of Parliament, Assembly Members and County Councillors from Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire and Powys to provide an operational briefing on the facts about Dyfed-Powys Police’s requirements for an air support service. The meeting also provided an opportunity to ensure that key stakeholders were made aware of the proposal from the NPAS for providing an air support service across Dyfed-Powys in the future. Chief Constable Prince is aware of the need to balance operational requirements against the cost of the service, recognising that the helicopter crew currently provide a vital service for communities.
Under the new operating model, I understand Dyfed-Powys Police will still have the capability to move specialist officers and equipment to wherever they are needed. They will have access to more helicopters than they have now from bases at: Hawarden in North Wales; Birmingham Airport in the West Midlands; St Athan in South Wales; and Filton in Avon and Somerset. They say that this will provide far greater resilience than would have been the case in the past if, for example, a force helicopter was down for maintenance or any other reason.
Finally, I have been told that the NPAS are committed to meeting the identified needs of all force areas in England and Wales. The NPAS Strategic Board is confident that the new operating model will provide adequate cover and added resilience to all forces.
I would remind Members that this is not a devolved matter and is therefore not something over which the Welsh Government has any direct control. However, I share the concerns raised over the possible impact on the service provided and I will continue to monitor the situation. I will keep members updated and I am aware of further concerns which have since been brought to my attention.