I haven't blogged for a while with much going but most of it out of bounds for this blog and this writer!
The constant by my side of late and the consistent theme of much of my thinking at the moment is the controversial issue of police force mergers and I've decided to finish the blog I've started so many times before but never quite finished.
There are two reasons why I have so far resisted the urge to put pen to paper on this issue.
Firstly, it's a very current and personal issue at work.
As an Assistant Chief Constable working in two police forces where the vast majority of staff now work in single departments across two forces I am very aware of the debates and issues that swirl round mergers. Warwickshire and West Mercia are, in my view, as close to merged as any in the country. However they retain two Chiefs, two Deputies and there are two Police and Crime Commissioners and at present there are no plans to go beyond the current 'Alliance' supported by collaboration agreements, recruitment of joint staff and a single operating model for both forces.
So, let's be clear. My views on the issue are personal and well known by my colleagues and in blogging about them I'm not reflecting the views of either of my two forces or seeking to position anything or anyone.
Secondly, and possibly why my views are already known, I have a personal perspective on the subject because of my professional involvement in the issue that started well before my current posting.
In 2005 when the Labour Government attempted to force mergers on a predominantly supportive service but dubious public, I was the programme manager in the West Midlands Region working to merge the police forces of Staffordshire, Warwickshire, West Mercia and West Midlands. This role was one of the most interesting, challenging and ultimately frustrating that I have ever undertaken.
Indeed I now work for two forces who at the time were on opposites sides of the debate with West Mercia possibly the most public, principled and persistent critics of mergers. Two organisations diametrically opposed to merging then but who are now the closest collaborators in policing.
So, a blog long in gestation, but prompted to come to fruition by two unconnected events in the last week.
Enter Ed Balls and the Mercian Regiment.
On Monday, during his speech on future spending priorities for a Labour Government, Ed Balls said:
"Does it really make sense to have separate costly management and bureaucracy for so many separate government departments, agencies, fire services and police forces – the same number as when this Government came into office – all with separate leadership structures and separate specialist teams?"
Now I assume Ed discussed this with 'Mrs Balls' aka Yvette Cooper the shadow Home Secretary. If he didn't I'm sure it didn't go unnoticed in the Balls household later that evening, so I think we can safely say that the issue of police force mergers is back on the political agenda.
This is significant because it has been a taboo subject since the debacle of 2005/6 when a switch of Home Secretaries, the subsequent labelling of the Home Office as not fit for purpose and a tenacious campaign by the then Tory opposition saw the plans consigned to the 'too difficult to deal with / don't darken my door again' in-tray where it has languished ever since.
On Thursday, I had the honour and privilege to be present in Worcester when the Mercian Regiment received their new colours from HRH The Prince of Wales.
These were new colours for a new regiment.
I also heard the retiring Commanding Officer recall the challenge of bringing together the precursor regiments (the Cheshire Regiment, the Staffordshire Regiment and the Worcestershire & Sherwood Foresters). These were proud organisations with lengthy histories cataloguing hundreds of years of heroism and gallantry. They were 'forcibly' merged in a Ministry of Defence review against the backdrop of history, emotion, local pride and differing cultures.
Remarkably the work to merge these regiments was undertaken alongside simultaneous deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Comrades were lost and dozens injured. But they remained focused on their task both in war and in transforming themselves and through those extraordinary times the Mercian Regiment emerged.
On Thursday, this new Band of Brothers (and Sisters) stood proudly to attention in front of their Colonel in Chief and claimed their stake in the future; they have not forgotten their proud past and it was apparent that change had not always been easy. They now face the next challenge of losing one of their 4 battalions which again will be managed while deployed but it was apparent to all that they were confidently looking to the future.
Readers of my previous blogs will know that I am a sceptic of the idea that the armed forces have ready made answers for police leadership. They are are different organisations with differing roles, cultures and histories. But I do recognise the strength in learning from each other and in acknowledging how things may be done differently.
The Mercian experience is one such example.
Since 2006 there have been a range of successful collaborations between forces, statutory guidance 'encouraging' and 'requiring' joint working and a few skirmishes between forces wooing each other to take the next step. But the 'M' word has remained by and large silent while forces are Inspected and assessed on their collaborations and shared working.
Up until Monday both the Government and Opposition were also silent on the issue of mergers. The official Home Office stance is that merging forces is not on their agenda of reform but they would not block forces from merging. The Government know the strength of feeling generated in their own back benches last time.
So police forces up and down England and Wales are finding creative and cost effective ways of sharing assets, merging functions, outsourcing activity and saving literally millions of £s as part of the CSR. There are regional units, joint boards, commissioning groups and steering bodies working across over forty police forces who remain firmly part of the fixtures and fittings of policing. There is no shortage of deck chairs to rearrange should the service hit an iceberg.
The arrival of new governance structures for policing in November with PCCs embodying localism and direct accountability were seen as a further sign that mergers were undeliverable. For the record as a Chief Officer who works with two PCCs I do not see the new governance arrangements as an obstacle to mergers. Yes there would be challenges and of course there would need to be compromise and negotiation but I don't subscribe to the view that it is now a bridge too far.
Since April this year Scotland has had a single police force. It's been built from the bottom upwards grounded in local policing linked to existing local authority areas. Specialist units that offer protection against threats which don't recognise force boundaries are embedded. I'm sure colleagues in Scotland won't claim that this has all been as easily achieved as it seems and I have no doubt there will be challenges ahead, but they have delivered a model of policing and the baby and bathwater appear intact.
As we await the outcome of the current spending review and the service prepares itself for further significant cuts in funding, it seems inconceivable that we can look to find further savings without looking at the most obvious overheads - the structure of force boundaries.
In overseeing a current review of local policing in two forces where the prospect of police station closures, reducing officer numbers and the challenge to maintain key services are daily features I don't believe it would be acceptable to the public that we would look again at front line service delivery in future cuts and avoid a debate about force boundaries, overheads and the existing police landscape.
In addition, as the College of Policing matures and starts to make real on the promises of national standards and evidence based practice I cannot see how a model that relies on 43 Chief Constables to reach a consensus on delivery can be sustained.
Deconstructing ACPO may be politically convenient but it avoids the real issue. There are too many Chiefs running too many forces.
Bodies like the NCA provide protection at a national level; neighbourhood policing delivers locally. The force structure in between needs to enhance and support policing at both ends of this spectrum and it is fanciful to imagine that 43 is now the answer.
It may come as a surprise to some that West Mercia Police was not referenced in the Doomsday Book or the Magna Carta. It is in fact a construct of local government reorganisation in 1967. However, for over forty years it has shown that it can deliver outstanding policing at a local level to communities as different and geographically distant as Oswestry and Ross on Wye with one police force spanning 3 counties. Thames Valley and Avon and Somerset also work on a similar scale and structure and there is no evidence that they deliver less effective local policing. In fact I am absolutely certain that most people have no idea where their force HQ is or what the boundaries are. They want effective policing and the 'thrilling' world of co-terminoisity and the flukes of 1960s local government planning are an irrelevance.
In 2005 the debate on mergers was overly political, driven top down and vested interest on both sides of the debate drowned out reasoned and balanced argument.
In 2013 the time has come to revisit the issue. The debate needs to be on the real issues in the context of preserving local service delivery in the reality of a transformed national landscape and unprecedented reductions in funding. Anyone who imagines we can make savings by cutting the much quoted and now nearly none existent back office or working more closely with other partners doesn't recognise the reality of the challenge.
The time has come to restart the dialogue.
It's time to Dial 'M' for Merger.