Will PSNI station closures improve efficiency?
There is no doubt that the cost of retaining Northern Ireland’s 108 police stations is enormous and, given the constraints on the policing budget, it makes sense to dispose of those whose usefulness is over.
However, the problem for the PSNI is that there is no consensus on which stations should be closed and sold. That is very evident in the differing attitudes of unionist and Sinn Fein councillors.
Tomorrow the Policing Board will be asked to rubber stamp proposals to sell 26 stations across the province. Police say 20 of those are no longer in use, five are open only on a limited basis and only one is fully operational.
Several unionist members of the Board remain to be convinced that the sell-off is a good idea, while Sinn Fein members welcome the move and see it as removing unwanted legacies of the past which have become blots on the landscape.
The sale is part of a wider plan to limit the number of police stations in the province. Proposals for further closures are likely in the coming months, leading to the total of stations being shut rising to 40. On a financial basis this probably makes good economic sense and the days when the security budget was virtually limitless are long gone. The police, like everyone else, have to live within their funding.
However, the closure strategy cannot be simply based upon economic factors.
There is no doubt that many people feel a sense of reassurance at the presence of a local police station. They have been used for many years with police virtually on their doorstep and do not want to see that presence eradicated. It is essential that any further closure plans are discussed fully with local communities and their representatives at forums like the district policing partnerships.
While Northern Ireland today is a vastly changed place from a decade or more ago, it should also be remembered that there still remains a serious threat from dissident republicans.
Outgoing Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde has repeatedly pointed up the dangers from dissidents. They are particularly active in the Fermanagh area and it is somewhat surprising that four of the stations being considered for sale are sited in that county.
If the sales go ahead, and if more stations are closed, then the PSNI will have to explain very carefully how it plans to provide a police presence throughout the province.
Most of the closures are in rural areas and there are genuine fears that a reduced police presence could led to an upsurge in crime in the countryside. The criminals might well feel that response times will be slower if there are fewer stations and therefore they stand less chance of being apprehended.
The PSNI needs to ensure that public confidence in its policing strategy is not dented.
Perhaps savings made through the closure and sale of obsolete stations can be redeployed to improve the efficiency of force.
In that case the argument for closure will be much stronger. But it is a case that will not be easy to prove to critics of the move.