>The urge to amalgamate

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Amidsta Scottish legislative programme consisting of 15 Bills, a single policy caughtthe media’s attention. Alex Salmond announced plans for the creationof a single Scottish police force and fire and emergency service. This wouldamalgamate today’s eight police forces and eight fire services into one nationalbody for each.

Thepush for amalgamation is not peculiar to the SNP, to Scotland or to the currentclimate of budget constraints. The prospect of reducing the number of Scottishforces was raisedearlier in the year, and again in2010.

Southof the border, moves to rationalise police forces in England and Wales were announced byCharles Clarke on 6 February 2006, only to meet with stiff local and organisationalopposition. The plans were eventuallyshelved in August 2006, but only after £11.5m was spent by police forces onplanning.

Policingis an especially emotive issue, and one in which local loyalties and democraticaccountability trumps the logic of cost savings, scale and operationalefficiency. The SNP move will be seen as a step forward in forging a separateScottish identity – the emergency forces united under the saltire. Such a movein England would create howls of protest and fear of a centralised policestate.

TheBritish system bucks the European trend of having national policeorganisations. France has la policenationale, Germany, the Bundeskriminalamtand Italy, the Carabinieri.Closer to home, Ireland’s national police service, An Garda Síochána, is the same from Malin toMizen. Even the USA, fiercely defensive of states’ rights and home of themunicipal police force, has the FBI. Why doesthe UK have such an expensive array of police forces? And what is thehistorical context for amalgamation?

Althoughnight watches and guardians of the peace were in existence long before the 19thcentury, modern policing in the UK began with London’s Metropolitan Police. In1829, Robert Peel introduced the MetropolitanPolice Act and London’s police force (along with the affectionate nicknameof ‘Bobbies’) was born.

The MunicipalCorporations Act 1835 along with the Rural Constabulary Act 1839 and theCounty Police Act 1840 allowed boroughs and counties to create their own policeforces. With the Countyand Borough Police Act 1856 this was made mandatory (and was mirrored inScotland by the General Police Act (Scotland) 1857).  By 1860, there were around 200 separatepolice forces, and by 1900 thishad grown to 243 forces.

Thepressure for consolidation and amalgamation has existed almost since the inceptionof modern policing. It was the logical solution to stretched police resourcesand duplication of effort, especially when the smallest historic boroughs andcounties had their own separate forces.

Provisionsin the County Police Act 1840 permitted voluntary amalgamations. It facilitatedthe demise of SouthMolton Borough Police (merged into Devon Constabulary in 1877), LauncestonBorough Police (amalgamated in 1883 with Cornwall Constabulary) andChipping Norton Borough Police (into Oxfordshire Constabulary). Given theseboroughs had populations of roughly 16,800,3,600and 18,000respectively at the time of amalgamation, it is hard to see how they couldjustify separate forces (although the existence of an independent ChippingNorton police could have added spice to the media storm around the ChippingNorton set).
Anotherwave of consolidations came under the auspices of the Local Government Act 1888which forcedamalgamation for towns with populations of less than 10,000. Deal,Bideford, Falmoth and Tenterden, along with 12 other forces, merged into theirrespective county constabularies at this time.

Afurther batch of small forces would be rationalised under theDefence (Amalgamation of Police Forces) Regulations 1942. This act focusedon Kent for obvious civil defence purposes, and saw Dover, Folkestone,Maidstone, Margate, Rochester, Tunbridge Wells and Ramsgate lose theirindependent police forces.

Thefirst wholesale, centralised and planned consolidation came with the PoliceAct 1946. This reduced the number of constabularies to 131 and saw thedemise of the splendidly named Liberty of Peterborough Constabulary and thepleasantly obscure Chepping Wycombe Borough Police.

Seriousrationalisation would come under the Police Act 1964, which dramaticallyreduced the number of forces to 49. This saw the first major protests againstforced amalgamations, led by the still infant Luton Borough Police. Luton’sseparate police force had only come into existence on 1 April 1964, and it wasalmost immediately threatened with forced amalgamation into BedfordshireConstabulary. The campaign eventually led to Luton servinga High Court writ on Henry Brooke, the Home Secretary.

Allvestiges of smaller, historic county forces would be swept away alongside localgovernment reform in the LocalGovernment Act 1972, with Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds, Hull and Bradfordlosing their independent police forces. A similar rationalisationsaw Scottish constabularies reduce from 20 city and county based forces to theeight that are currently facing merger.

Althoughthese reforms left police forces in the same shape as we see today, calls forrationalisation did not disappear. In 1981 the Chief Constable of GreaterManchester, James Anderton, called for 10 regional police forces across Englandand Wales.

Therationalisation of territorial police forces has been accompanied by the demiseof a vast array of special forces, covering the railways, canals, docks,rivers, airports, parks, markets, cathedrals and even Eton College. Some havesurvived, including constabularies for the Cityof London’s Markets, CambridgeUniversity (Oxford’s force, populary known the Bulldogs, wasdisbanded in 2003), SalisburyCathedral and YorkMinster.

Theonly anomaly in the history of multiple police forces has been the position ofNorthern Ireland. The Royal Ulster Constabulary remained as the singlepolice force for the north of Ireland following partition in 1922. It wasthe remnant of the Royal Irish Constabulary that had previously policed thewhole island (with the exception of Dublin’s city constabulary). On 4 November2001 the RUC became the Police Serviceof Northern Ireland as part of the Good Friday Agreement. With the RUC’sdemise one of the bitterest grievances of northern Irish Catholics was tackled. 

Policingin the UK has moved a long way from nearly 250 separate territorial forces anda medley of special forces for everything from cathedrals to markets, ports topower stations. There are now just 39 territorial forces in England, 4 inWales, 8 in Scotland and one in Northern Ireland and four principal ‘specialpolice forces’ (the British Transport Police, Ministry of Defence Police, CivilNuclear Constabulary and the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency).

Doesthe seemingly relentless move to consolidation, amalgamation and merger signalthe death of local policing? How does it fit in with the Coalition government’slocalism agenda? And, in an age of austerity and severe budget cuts, can weafford to ignore the cost savings, efficiency gains and eradication ofduplication that larger forces may bring?  

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