County better off without own police helicopter, says Minister

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Controversial plans to scrap South Yorkshire’s dedicated police helicopter will lead to a better service than the county currently enjoys, a Home Office Minister has claimed.

South Yorkshire Police Authority is fighting to save its local service after the Government announced money-saving proposals that would see regional forces sharing helicopters.

But Policing Minister Nick Herbert suggested yesterday the proposed National Police Air Service (NPAS) should be welcomed in South Yorkshire, even though flight times to some parts of the county could treble.

He said the plans were drawn up by the UK’s most powerful policing body, the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) and had the support of chief constables across the country.

Speaking on a visit to Leeds to raise awareness about elected police commissioners, he added: “It is a proposal from the service’s operational leaders that will save money, and every pound that is saved helps to protect the number of police officers. It is a proposal that will mean helicopters are available 24/7 and not grounded as is the case in South Yorkshire at the moment.

“The South Yorkshire helicopter is not available at all hours of the day and last year was available for only 80 per cent of the time within those hours, whereas the NPAS proposal is about improving the service and the flight times are still within the recommended standard of 20 minutes.”

The Sheffield-based Air Operations Unit completed 4,832 missions last year, making 319 arrests and helping to catch a further 399 suspects. It helped find 42 vulnerable missing people, located 143 vehicles and recovered property and drugs worth £2.32m.

Under NPAS plans, the force would rely on helicopters from Wakefield, Humberside Airport or Ripley in Derbyshire.

Clive Betts, Labour MP for Sheffield South East, said: “There is an increased length of time if a helicopter comes from elsewhere – if it can come at all because, if it’s engaged in a case in its local area, it won’t be there. People operating the helicopter won’t know the area nearly as well, and at the moment we have proper co-ordination between the helicopter and officers on the ground because they are part of the same force.

“All these things are missing from the proposals from the Government. I would say to the Policing Minister: ‘By all means have a national scheme and say whoever wants to join can join, but why from the centre impose solutions on local areas when a local chief constable probably knows best?’”

South Yorkshire’s new Chief Constable, David Crompton, and the police authority believe there is room for manoeuvre and are negotiating with Acpo.

Acpo’s lead officer for the NPAS, Alex Marshall, said: “We need to find a suitable strategy for the whole country which has to be cost effective in the current financial climate. We continue to work with South Yorkshire Police Authority and are confident an appropriate conclusion will be reached.”