03 July 2015
Article by Elfyn Henderson, National Assembly for Wales Research Service
The National Police Air Service has announced that the Dyfed Powys police helicopter base at Pembrey is to close as part of a cost cutting exercise.
On Tuesday 7 July the Assembly will be debating how the Dyfed Powys helicopter ‘provides vital support to public safety in mid and west Wales.’
What is the National Police Air Service?
The National Police Air Service (NPAS) provides air support to all police forces across Wales and England. It was established in 2012 following a review of the approach to police air services.
Under NPAS, the nearest available NPAS aircraft responds to requests from police forces, rather than individual forces owning and operating their own helicopter, as was the case under the previous system.
When NPAS was launched, it was expected to make significant cost savings compared to the previous system. The then Policing Minister, Damian Green MP, said:
This new police led, government-supported scheme will keep 98 per cent of people in England and Wales 20 minutes or less from police air support and will save up to £15 million a year.
In 2011 there were 30 police helicopters operating from 28 bases across Wales and England. NPAS introduced a 22 base model, reducing the number of aircraft to 25, saying that this would actually increase overall aircraft availability (by 8%).
What does the Dyfed Powys helicopter do?
The helicopter can reach any part of the Dyfed Powys area within 40 minutes and assists ground units with:
- Searches for missing people, suspects and vehicles
- Casualty evacuation
- Transporting specialist teams around the force area
- Gathering intelligence/evidence using aerial photography and video
- Vehicle pursuits
The Dyfed Powys Police website says that the helicopter can search one square mile of land in 12 minutes costing only £140, whereas the same area would take officers on the ground 454 hours to search and cost over £4,500. Also:
Given the fact that the force covers such a vast rural area, and many diverse communities, the helicopter is seen as such vital tool in fighting crime and helping members of these communities.
There’s a video on the website showing the helicopter in action:
In November 2014 the Dyfed Powys Police and Crime Commissioner, Christopher Salmon, announced that he had struck a deal with NPAS so that a helicopter would continue to be based at Pembrey.
Why is the Dyfed Powys base closing?
In February 2015 NPAS announced that it was moving to a 15 base model to make further cost savings. At the time of the announcement there were 23 aircraft in the NPAS fleet, including 19 helicopters.
Two of the bases due to close are in Wales – Pembrey (due to close on 1 January 2016) and Rhuddlan (due to close on 15 September 2015). This will leave two bases in Wales – Hawarden and St Athan.
In making the announcement, the manager of NPAS said:
NPAS needs to find further substantial financial savings with a target of 14% of revenue cuts over the next three years. This is on top of the 23% savings already made. […] There is no easy way of doing this and difficult decisions have to be made. […]
This move will help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the service and mean that every base supports police forces 24 hours a day. It is a move based on an analysis of potential threat, risk and harm to the public we serve. Part of the move will also see four fixed-wing aircraft form part of the fleet. These will be based out of the East Midlands Airport. Fixed-wing aircraft are cheaper to fly than rotary aircraft [helicopters].
What has been the reaction to the announcement?
Dyfed Powys Police and Crime Commissioner, Christopher Salmon, said the decision is ‘hugely disappointing’ and that although he supports the objectives of the plan, it ‘shouldn’t happen at the expense of service in rural areas.’ He also said:
… this plan raises real concern about how quickly NPAS can respond to calls in mid-Wales. If it comes into being as proposed, NPAS will be in breach of its obligations under the agreement we have only just signed.
North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner, Winston Roddick, has spoken out about the closure of the Rhuddlan base. He said that he’s concerned the decision doesn’t ‘concentrate enough on north Wales’s needs’, and:
NPAS has not taken the time to properly explain the rationale of the new operating model to us and I am therefore exploring whether there is an option to appeal the decision.
An Early Day Motion on the closure of the Pembrey base was tabled in the House of Commons on 23 February 2015. The EDM:
… notes that the Dyfed Powys Police and Crime Commissioner had a written agreement with the National Police Air Service (NPAS) in November 2014 that the Pembrey base would be retained; expresses concern at the decision by NPAS to close 10 of the current 25 helicopter bases across the UK, including Pembrey; and calls on the Government to intervene to overturn this decision.