Police commissioner given tough time during meeting on proposed force merger

police car

DORSET’S Police and Crime Commissioner Martyn Underhill was left in no doubt over Lyme Regis residents’ dissatisfaction with police cover when he held a public meeting in the town last week.

Mr Underhill held a poorly-attended public meeting at the Woodmead Halls last Friday to outline proposals to merge Dorset Police with the force in Devon & Cornwall.

The discussion was dominated by the perceived lack of police presence in Lyme Regis, with Mr Underhill questioned repeatedly on the subject and asked to guarantee more frontline staff if the merger was to go ahead.

Giving a presentation on the proposed merger, Mr Underhill – who has served as Police and Crime Commissioner as an independent since 2012 – emphasised that the move was not being driven by politicians, but by police officers themselves.

He said the chief constables of both Dorset and Devon & Cornwall felt that the two forces would work better together and had asked to officially merge – the first request of its kind in 100 years.

While the proposed merger was expected to make immediate savings of £3.2million, Mr Underhill said it was “not about money”, but improving the police force to respond to the increasing demand on its services.

Dorset and Devon & Cornwall police forces formed an alliance in 2015; 25 per cent of staff were already involved in this and 38 sections of the police were already combined.

The proposed merger would see the two forces legally become one, with one chief constable and one Police and Crime Commissioner. However, it was hoped there would be three separate headquarters in the three counties – in Bodmin, Exeter and possibly Dorchester.

This would create the fifth biggest police force in the country and the biggest rural police force, which would have more influence at a national level.

Mr Underhill said the merger would guarantee at least 100 additional frontline staff across the area, but he hoped this would increase up to 430 additional staff.

Other benefits would include an increase in efficiency, effectiveness and productivity, strengthened accountability through a single point of leadership and a reduced administrative burden.

With the meeting having been opened to questions from the public, town and district councillor Cheryl Reynolds complained that Lyme Regis only had one “part-time” Police Community Support Office (PCSO).

She commented: “We need to now that this merger will give us more frontline police because we have no one other than one part-time PCSO and everyone is really upset about that.”

More frontline staff

Mr Underhill reiterated that between 100 and 430 more frontline staff would be coming to Dorset, Devon and Cornwall if the merger went forward but said it was up to the chief constable where they were placed. He added that 30 per cent of PCSOs were part-time, and he could not change this because of employment laws.

Councillor Reynolds replied: “What about the rest of the hours? We are without a police officer for more than half the week.”

Town councillor John Broom added: “Lyme has something like 15,000 people here on a summer’s day and we have no one. It’s ridiculous!”

Mr Underhill said that Lyme’s PCSO was not its only police force and the area was covered by officers based out of Bridport. He added that Dorset had lost 500 police staff through government funding cuts, however he would look into the issue of the PCSO’s hours.

Councillor Reynolds continued: “We have no police officer and a station that is left empty. We have an influx of residents in summer. We had a major event yesterday [‘I Love Lyme Day’] and not one officer was available to attend.”

Mr Underhill replied: “It won’t get any better if we don’t merge forces.”

Councillor Reynolds: “But you can’t guarantee it will get better if we do merge.”

Mr Underhill: “We can guarantee it, as there will be more front line staff.”

Councillor Reynolds: “But you have no jurisdiction as to where they go.”

Local police officer Kirsti Frecknall clarified that PSCO Amanda King was not part-time, but the area she covered also included Marshwood, Charmouth and surrounding villages, which meant she was not in Lyme Regis all the time.

PC Frecknall encouraged residents to call police with any issues so they knew what was going on.

Councillor Reynolds replied: “People do call and they get no response so they’ve had enough of calling, they say it’s a waste of time.”

Town clerk John Wright said the council needed to tighten its relationship with the police, as it currently felt “disjointed” from officers.

“Trying to arrange meetings has become a bit frustrating with just one PCSO who is not here all the time,” he said.

“It’s important that we have a sense of what’s going on. We can do bit a more together because it feels like we are a bit disconnected at the moment.”

Mr Underhill said he hoped Lyme would feel more connected with the police force if the merger did take place, as it would no longer be the “last bastion” on the outskirts of Dorset, and would be more central in the wider Dorset, Devon and Cornwall force.

He added: “I sense your frustration. I hope you have told your MP because the government has cut and cut and cut. The government is not looking after policing.”

A public consultation on the proposed police force merger will remain open until Monday, August 27. For more information or to respond to the consultation, visit the website www.futurepolicing.co.uk

Woodmead Halls

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