Cash-strapped police forces in the West should not have to merge to survive, despite a new wave of swingeing cuts to their budgets from central Government.
That was the defiant message from the one of the region's elected police commissioners, who said that while forces from Gloucester to Dorchester would have to work more closely together, a regional West force – or two counties merging – was 'not going to happen'.
Angus MacPherson, Wiltshire's police and crime commissioner, spoke after announcing the first rise in the police part of the council tax precept in Wiltshire and Swindon for years – albeit a modest rise of £3.15 per house per year.
Chief constables and crime commissioners are wrestling with another round of budget cuts imposed by ministers in Whitehall, with millions being slashed from budgets of the Avon & Somerset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Dorset forces.
Police chiefs are being further angered by a 'top slicing' of their budgets to pay for national initiatives, including a beefed up new Independent Police Complaints Commission, national training centres, an Innovation Fund and even the City of London police's investigation into the banking sector.
The rural forces in the West are among the worst-funded per head of population in the country already, and will be receiving even less in future. The Government's funding announcement has put paid to their calls for 'fairer funding' of constabularies in rural areas.
Mr MacPherson said Wiltshire had already had to cut £10 million from its budget, and cut another £15 million in the next three years – although the council tax rise would off-set this by £2.3 million.
"No one ever likes to pay more tax, but the tax hasn't been increased for many years," he said.
"Wiltshire is the third lowest funded police force per head of population in the country and we can't continue to provide a good service without finding more money from somewhere."
In the past year, collaborations with other forces in the South West have been made to save money: the West's forensics service is to merge, and Avon & Somerset and Wiltshire already work together on serious crime, firearms training and other 'back office' tasks.
Mr MacPherson's fellow commissioner in Devon & Cornwall, Tony Hogg, said the 'top slicing' of its funds from central Government would mean £2.5 million not reaching the West. The practical thing is that it puts a huge burden on our budget just when we don't need it," he said.
"It is an unexpected addition to the burden on us and it is effectively centralisation of control and that is to me going in the wrong direction.
"We need to be protecting neighbourhood policing because the more I understand this job the more I feel the pressure is coming on neighbourhood policing.
"It is so essential, I've got to try to protect it and these effective funding cuts don't help," he added.