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Case for caution in control room cuts

Today, Police Scotland announces the closure of a number of its control rooms, with the possible loss of hundreds of jobs.

It is a terrible blow for the staff concerned, but it also, quite naturally, raises concern about the single force's ability to respond promptly and efficiently to emergencies and other local needs across Scotland.

In one respect, the announcement comes as no surprise. From the first days of the combined force, chief constable Sir Stephen House warned that redundancies were inevitable. It has also been known since last summer that the force has plans to close many of its police stations on the basis people do not visit them in the numbers they once did.

In the age of the internet, there is a good deal of sense in that argument, but control rooms are another matter entirely. There are 10 in all, linked to the territories of the old regional forces that Police Scotland replaced, and they deal with every single person who calls 999 or 101, its non-emergency equivalent.

The centres are also staffed by an impressive cadre of civilian staff. They are a committed and informed group of workers with a sharp sense of duty and responsibility and one of the main arguments against the closure of any of the control centres is that the considerable local knowledge of the staff would be lost or squandered.

However, there is a counter argument to this, and it is that the information technology used by the control centres allows the operator to establish promptly where the call is coming from and pass the details on to the appropriate service. The local knowledge of the control centre worker may be reassuring, so the argument goes, but it is not essential.

The strength of this argument depends entirely on the strength of the technology and it is not of the same quality across the force. It is good in some places, but not so good in others. It may be that Police Scotland has decided to shut those centres where the technology is not so good, but if the closures are to proceed, the force must be certain that, with the loss of so many staff, the IT infrastructure is up to the job.

In principle, if this test can be met, there is no reason why the number of centres cannot be reduced - indeed, similar reforms have already been introduced in the combined Fire and Rescue Service without negative results. Also, one of the strongest arguments for the creation of Police Scotland was that economies could be achieved by removing duplication of services.

Nevertheless, the force must proceed with its plans cautiously. The decision to merge Scotland's eight police forces into one was the right one, but any reforms and consolidations must stand up to a critical question: after the closures, will the control centres still be able to respond to every call as well as before, or better than in the past?

The centres are one of the frontline of the emergency services and changes must be driven not by the desire to save money but by what is best for the safety, security and confidence of Scotland's communities.

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