Belfast Telegraph

Policing the budget... why Baggott's lot is unenviable

Ageing Land Rovers are not the Chief Constable's only headache as he tries to balance the books, says Alan Murray

With crumbling stations and disintegrating Land Rovers, the Chief Constable's lot, as the song goes, is not a happy one.

The cuts culture had already arrived here before Matt Baggott was kitted out in his new PSNI uniform. Some £17m worth of cuts had already been demanded before he took the helm at police headquarters.

Cuts and costs have been a major element in policing decisions during his tenure as Chief Constable and more of the same appears high on his New Year 'must-do' list.

Over the last decade, our once ever-soaring policing costs have been scaled down and, many say, the service has been pared back, too.

Many stations have been sold off and bulldozed across Northern Ireland as time has been called on their arcane structures.

Two years ago, it was estimated that more than 60% of the then 108 police stations across the province were opened only on a part-time basis, with 20 of those considered effectively closed, because no one could remember when operational duties were last launched from them.

The latest proposed cull of stations could see more than 30 bite the dust next year without actually making a pile of cash that the Policing Board could use, magic wand-wise, to bolster its diminishing budget.

And, as another year of policing Ulster's fractious streets looms, the roadworthiness of the fleet of specialist vehicles at Matt Baggott's command has been called into question.

It goes without saying that, if another 30-plus PSNI stations are closed, then more rubber is going to be meeting the tarmac more of the time as officers travel greater distances to reach outposts no longer served by a local station.

Some of those armoured vehicles are 14 years old, but regrettably are still required because of a dissident threat which, thankfully, has become more infrequent.

However, the necessity to ensure that large numbers of police officers can be ferried to our usual summer trouble-spots safely and, thereafter, can be deployed in bullet-proof reassurance, means that the PSNI must continue to buy Land Rovers costing four or five times the going rate for soft-skinned vehicles.

Currently, 385 of these fuel-guzzling armoured vehicles are retained by the PSNI and will be for the foreseeable future.

Regrettably, they are essential for a multiplicity of safety and tactical reasons and are, because of their very structure, sometimes borrowed by police forces in England to meet occasional operational requirements.

It wouldn't be uncommon for the older vehicles to have clocked more than a quarter of a million miles, such has been their deployment over the last dozen or more years. And while riotous situations continue to be encountered here, they will continue guzzling fuel.

However negative the message they send, they cannot be dispensed with - just as escort duties cannot be dispensed with.

And it's not only the judiciary that requires daily protection. Some senior police officers other than the Chief Constable are also driven daily to work from their homes because of the risk to their lives. Being driven more than 100 miles to and from work on a daily basis is an experience some senior officers continue to endure.

These costs are a unique part of our policing budget, which don't feature in the overhead costs of other police forces across these islands.

The Republic has the Garda emergency response unit, which does specialist protection and escort work, but seldom is it tasked to transport a senior Garda from one part of the Republic to another to sit behind a desk.

The only respite in the war on PSNI costs is the allocation of some of MI5's budget to the task of waging a very necessary intelligence war against dissident republicans - that saves the Policing Board a right few millions every year now.

Matt Baggott's lot today is a costly and not very happy one.

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