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Union blasts use of council staff to help thin blue line

WHEN reporting a crime, lost property, or applying for a gun licence, you might expect to deal with the police.

Witney Gazette: Police area commander Colin Paine and Mark Booty, deputy leader of West Oxfordshire District Council, outside the Guildhall Police area commander Colin Paine and Mark Booty, deputy leader of West Oxfordshire District Council, outside the Guildhall

But in Chipping Norton these duties are to be taken over by council staff in a deal to save Thames Valley Police cash.

And last night critics warned it could the “thin end of the wedge” and that more police counter services could be taken over by councils.

The move comes after the force announced in July that bases in Chipping Norton, Woodstock, and Charlbury would be shut and “more efficient” alternatives found.

Now it is to pay West Oxfordshire District Council £10,000 to run the counter service from the Guildhall for the first year – the force doesn’t yet know how much it will cost after that.

Council staff will be vetted, then trained by police in duties including handing out crime reduction advice and dealing with those producing driving documents after an accident.

If someone reports a crime they will be asked to call the police enquiry centre on the 101 number.

But Rod Matheson, Unison branch secretary at the force, said: “We see it as the thin end of the wedge. Further down the line they might think they can do it elsewhere.”

He said he did not want to see the force pay the council to carry out police work, adding: “I don’t want to see council staff do police work anymore than I want to see a police officer emptying bins. We could be reinvesting that money back into the existing staff and retaining jobs and improving services.”

Thames Valley Police is bidding to cut £56.3m – 12 per cent of its budget – between 2011 and 2015.

The force has already saved £33.4m by restricting officer recruitment, cutting police staff from 3,000 to 2,779 and centralising office services.

Graham Smith, chairman of the Thames Valley Police Federation, said: “Thames Valley Police have been forced to save money because of the budget cuts. This is one of the faces of the budget cuts.”

But he added: “I am sure the public would prefer to go into a police station.”

The move is due to take place by the end of the year and Thames Valley Police says the counter will then be in a more convenient location than the London Road station – which costs £70,000-a-year to run.

The counter will also be open to the public from 8.45am to 1pm and from 2pm to 4.30pm Monday to Friday. The current station is open to the public from 10am to 2pm Monday to Friday.

Supt Colin Paine, commander for West Oxfordshire and Cherwell, said: “This is great news for residents of Chipping Norton. They will keep the police front counter and it will be open an extra 15 hours per week, but will not cost the tax payer any more than at present.”

He said “a smaller and more efficient alternative” to the station had not been found yet, adding: “The police station will not close until the neighbourhood team has been re-located to a new police base.”

The council and force already work together in areas of community safety, licensing, housing and emergency planning.

Mark Booty, West Oxfordshire District Council cabinet member for community safety, said: “This partnership approach at the Guildhall is a win, win solution for everyone. Residents will gain from longer opening hours and our town centre location has easy access with everything on the ground floor.”

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