New service to provide police helicopters

image captionPolice forces in England and Wales will share helicopters to save money

The police helicopters of England and Wales are to be merged into a single National Police Air Service.

A "shadow service" will begin next year and the full national service will roll out in 2012.

Currently there are 33 aircraft at 30 different bases. These all belong to individual forces.

The National Police Air Service will have 23 aircraft at 20 bases. This will save £15m from the current total of £66m.

The president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) Sir Hugh Orde said: "This project is all about enhancing the service we already have for less money."

The service, which will also have three spare choppers, will provide 24-hour cover with a 20-minute response time for 97% of the population of England and Wales.

In many forces there is only cover for about 18 hours at present.

British Transport Police will be in charge of the service's command and control structure and there will also be a clear "user requirement" laid out, meaning flights - which cost around £2,000 per hour - will be approved only if they are necessary.

It is not clear if police forces in Scotland and Northern Ireland plan to follow suit.

Alex Marshall, the Chief Constable of Hampshire Police, who is co-ordinating the project, was asked about the use of drones.

He said: "The starting positions is we use what we have got and then we will look at innovations. At the moment the law does not allow us to use drones out of the line of sight."

Police helicopters are regularly used by forces chasing suspects on foot and in vehicles and can also be a vital tool in the search for missing people.

The decision to launch the new service and amalgamate police helicopters is a response to a review ordered by the government last year.

But there have been fears expressed that the new service will be poorer.

In August the chairman of the Hampshire branch of the Police Federation, John Apter, warned about plans to merge the force's helicopters with those of Sussex and Surrey.

He said: "I'm confident the service won't be badly affected, but we have to accept that in reducing from three to two aircraft, there has got to be a level of service that is diminished. The service I hope we will obtain will be adequate but it's clearly not the Rolls-Royce service we've been used to."

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