Police helicopter to stay – but will face cut in hours
THE Avon and Somerset police helicopter will stay in Filton – but could face a "concerning" cut in the number of hours it flies every year.
The future of the helicopter has been up in the air ever since the plan for choppers to be pooled across the country was announced last year.
The Government's National Police Air Service (NPAS) – which will see forces in England and Wales sharing about 21 helicopters – is due to be launched on October 1 and cover all forces by early 2014.
The aircraft used by Avon and Somerset and Gloucestershire constabularies for the past 17 years under the Western Counties Air Operations Unit (WCAOU) banner had been earmarked for a move to RAF Colerne, Wiltshire.
Enjoy one free child admission with a full paying adult ticket.
Terms: Not to be used in conjunction with any discounted ticket or special ticket offer. No cash alternative. Excludes Bank Holidays and Bank Holiday Weekends. Ref: This is Bristol Website Voucher
Contact: 01963 400330
Valid until: Friday, January 31 2014
However, the police authority and constabulary fought for it to remain in Filton, close to Bristol, where most of its calls are.
At a police authority meeting at The Guildhall in Bath yesterday, members voted against signing the NPAS agreement currently on the table because of concerns the helicopter's flying hours would be drastically cut.
It currently flies for Avon and Somerset police about 800 hours every year and a draft NPAS agreement had mooted 700 hours of flying per year. However, the final version of the agreement is asking the authority to sign up to only 560 hours, for the same cost.
Assistant Chief Constable Rod Hansen said: "On review, constabulary and police authority representatives have flagged to the NPAS Programme Team serious concerns about the funding and significant reduction in flying hours.
"The contract significantly reduces the constabulary's flying hours and yet the funding does not reflect this. Initially, the funding was based on 700 hours."
Mr Hansen believes the proposed cut arose because in recent years the number of hours flown has been temporarily reduced to make "short-term" savings and the ASPA made calculations from those figures.
He added: "The police authority is effectively being asked to sign up to the agreement and fund 700 hours, yet only operate on 560 hours.
"Yes, in theory we could cope with 560 hours, but one-and-a-half hours per day with a force the size of Avon and Somerset makes it dubious."
Police authority chairman Dr Peter Heffer wrote to the NPAS outlining his concerns.
Yesterday, the authority agreed unanimously not to sign the agreement, the deadline for which is the end of the month.
It still supports the NPAS scheme but wants discussions to take place to come to a number of annual flying hours acceptable to the constabulary.
Dr Heffer said: "The authority does not find the proposal acceptable."
The NPAS is expected to save more than £200,000 every year in capital savings, as the police forces will no longer need to buy new helicopters and pay directly for their expensive upkeep.
Constabularies can bid for more flying hours than they are allotted, but the costs are prohibitive and hours cannot be guaranteed, the authority was told.
Mr Hansen said BAE Systems, which owns Filton airfield, remains happy for the WCAOU and Great Western Air Ambulance Charity to continue to operate from there, even after much of the airfield closes in December. Wiltshire Constabulary will share Avon and Somerset's helicopter from 2015.