Following the news that the National Police Air Service will reduce its air support and remove the Dyfed Powys police helicopter from operation, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr Member of Parliament outlines the his case to retain the existing service at its Pembrey base.
In 2009 the Association of Chief Police Officers undertook a review of the National Air Operations Strategy and looked at air support in policing. It concluded that the overall service was fragmented and did not provide value for money. In October 2010 a Council of Chief Constables met to discuss and agree the establishment of an England and Wales National Police Air Service (NPAS) – a centralised service - whereby police forces transfer ownership of their existing individual assets and instead depend on air support from pooled resource.
It wasn’t long later that NPAS announced proposals to have a fixed-wing aircraft, instead of a helicopter, serve the Dyfed Powys police force area. The then Police Authority expressed in no uncertain terms its concerns at the unsuitability of such an aircraft given the geography and topography of Dyfed Powys – sentiments I wholeheartedly agreed with at the time and a position I maintain today.
Accompanying the fixed-wing aircraft proposal was the uncertainty over the future of the Pembrey helicopter base. The base cost local taxpayers £1.2million and received an additional £280,000 Home Office grant for a purpose-built unit to accommodate its relocation from Carmarthen.
Fast forward to November last year, and the Police and Crime Commissioner announced he had secured the future of our local helicopter and, crucially, that it would continue to be based at Pembrey. On the face of the announcement, this was a positive outcome and a fantastic achievement for the Commissioner. However, giving the news a cautious welcome, my constituency colleague, Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM, questioned the operational independence of the helicopter given that the force was now signed up to a centralised service, and questioned whether there was a long-term commitment to the Pembrey base.
The recent announcement from NPAS that it will now remove the helicopter from Pembrey strongly justifies the caution Rhodri Glyn expressed on behalf of local residents.
The helicopter is vital tool in fighting crime and helping our communities. It is used for surveillance, vehicle pursuits and gathering intelligence and evidence with the use of aerial photography. It searches for missing people, suspects and vehicles. It transports specialist teams around the police force area and is used to casualty evacuation. The police helicopter has been a prominent asset to policing in our communities for many years. Dyfed Powys was, in fact, the first police force to own and operate a helicopter to complement its operations.
The most notable and emotive involvement of our police helicopter in recent time has been the search for little April Jones who was abducted from outside her Machynlleth home, and the search for young Cameron Comey which is heartbreakingly still underway. Additionally, whilst the Air Ambulance had been called out to Monmouth, our police helicopter was first on the scene at Tiryrychen Quarry, Llandybie, to rescue Luke Somerfield and transport him to Morriston Hospital. Regrettably, two of these examples ended with the worst possible news, but the prompt response of our local helicopter crew gave those innocent young children a fighting chance.
In a more positive intervention we have the 5-year-old girl flown to hospital in Pembrokeshire a matter of weeks ago because an ambulance was not available. A five year old girl, who medical staff say, may not be here today were it not for the swift transfer of the helicopter.
On Monday I visited the Pembrey base and met with some of the crew who police our skies. The crew is not just made up of pilots. They too are trained police officers who often, metaphorically speaking, swap their aviation hats for their police hats when they land the helicopter to help catch criminals, find lost persons or assist the injured. They undertake some sterling work and I for one am very grateful for their service.
Accompanying the recent NPAS announcement to reduce its bases around England and Wales were maps of proposed future coverage. These show great swathes of the Dyfed Powys force area only being reachable after a minimum 30 minute travel time from bases at St Athan or Bristol. You don’t have to be a detective to work out that extended travel times will significantly diminish our safety and the service available to us all.
To add insult to injury, the NPAS proposes one fixed-wing aircraft to serve the whole of Wales in addition to the west midlands and the south-west of England. This is completely at odds with the findings of the fixed-wing aircraft trial that took place in May 2012.
The then Police Authority confirmed the aircraft had very few positive features when operating in the Dyfed Powys terrain, spending 80 per cent of its time manoeuvering and only 20 percent locating lost or injured individuals. The main drawback cited was its inability to land and hover.
In geographical terms, Dyfed Powys is the largest police force area in England and Wales, covering half of the landmass of Wales and serving over half a million residents. A fixed-wing aircraft cannot serve the residents of Dyfed Powys as effectively as a helicopter and is in no way a like-for-like replacement.
So where do we go from here?
The Police Commissioner states the NPAS announcement is not what he had signed up for. If this is the case then he has my full support in ensuring NPAS maintains its agreement with the residents of Dyfed Powys which, we are told, is to retain the helicopter at its Pembrey base.
Today in Parliament I will be questioning the Secretary of State for Wales. It is clear that finance is the biggest - if not the only - motivation behind the changes. I will be insisting the Westminster government, therefore, intervenes and ensure the NPAS is properly resourced.
The Secretary of State, of course, represents the Preseli Pembrokeshire constituency which will be as equally affected as Carmarthenshire. I sincerely hope he will join me in supporting our local helicopter service and fight to ensure it is maintained.
Saving money and providing a more effective service are, of course, honourable intentions that nobody would condemn. But Dyfed Powys will be, in my mind, receiving the thin end of the wedge with a much diminished and much more ineffective service. It is not a situation I am prepared to accept.