Budgetary pressures are forcing all the emergency services to think about sharing work to spread the burden. The ambulance service is now fully regionalised, apart from the Isle of Wight. Fire brigade mergers are all the rage and five Wessex counties already share a control room network, four being in the ‘South West’ and one in the ‘South East’. The areas used for policing have transcended county boundaries for well over a generation now – only four Wessex counties still have their own force – and work-sharing is becoming more commonplace.
Last month the Devon & Cornwall and Dorset constabularies announced link-up plans. In Cornwall, where the 1967 merger with a couple of English forces still rankles, the announcement was met with dismay, even though fears that a formal merger is planned seem, so far, to be exaggerated. What they have done is prompt urgent discussion about what a Cornish-centred alternative would look like. Could the three emergency services, four if the coastguard is included, work together as a unit under a National Assembly of Cornwall?
Well, why not? Cornwall is geographically isolated, giving it coastal issues that are far more acute than elsewhere, and if it wants to do things its own way, nobody else will suffer. Mergers for mergers’ sake make about as much sense as managing Shetland’s water supply from the Scottish mainland (and yes, that’s been the case since 1996). If the Isle of Wight can have its autonomy in ambulance and fire cover, why not Cornwall, with four times its population? And could that hold for policing too?
The emergency services working together sounds like common sense and it’s not an idea unique to Cornwall. In Somerset, the three services are exploring the possibility of developing joint blue light response facilities, sharing workshops, offices and crew welfare provision. At the same time, integration within each of the three services in different areas seems likely to continue alongside integration between them in the same area. The balance to be struck will vary according to the terrain. In an area like Wessex, where county boundaries can appear quite theoretical on the ground, closer links across them may be the way to make savings. In more geographically distinct areas this may make much less sense than pooling resources locally.
That, of course, is the beauty of a regionalist and localist approach to problem-solving. It’s not about one-size-fits-all. It is all about capitalising on the value of difference. But with the three services all now developing different local alliances, and therefore different operational boundaries, who, short of the-powers-that-be in London, will provide a strategic overview? Time for devolution to get its act together.