Sussex Police under fire for not using custody suite – despite continuing to pay for it

Sussex Police has come under fire for not using one of the custody suites it pays a private company millions of pounds to run.

The force is now seeking to renegotiate the terms of the contract, with police and crime commissioner Katy Bourne saying that ‘with the benefit of hindsight’ the deal might not be one she would agree to today.

Chichester Custody Centre

Chichester Custody Centre

The custody suite in Chichester is one of four in the county that was built as part of a 30-year private finance initiative (PFI) contract agreed in 2001.

View an interactive version of our investigation into PFI schemes here.

Under the agreement, the contractor also provides custody services at these and two other custody suites in Sussex in exchange for a yearly payment, which amounted to £11.6million in 2018/19.

But the facility in Chichester has not been used since November last year, prompting criticisms that taxpayers’ money is being wasted.

PCC Katy Bourne at the custody suite in Hastings

PCC Katy Bourne at the custody suite in Hastings

Dr James Walsh, a councillor who chaired the former Sussex Police Authority in the 1990s, said: “The fact that the Chichester suite is not being used, even though it is being paid for by this scheme, just rubs salt into the wounds.”

He said the custody suite should either be being used or force bosses should be looking at ways of ending ‘this expensive waste of money’.

Explainer: What are Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs)?

Sussex Police defended the decision to mothball the site, with a spokesman saying it had the ‘lowest usage of the six custody centres across Sussex’.

The custody suite in Hastings

The custody suite in Hastings

A spokesman stressed that the custody suite in Chichester could not be viewed in isolation and said: “It forms part of a Sussex-wide estates strategy that seeks to make best use of the entire estate, drive an improved service and seek long-term value for money.”

Sussex Police was looking into a possible alternative use for the facility, the spokesman said.

Any alternative use would need to be agreed by Sussex Custodial Services, the contractor, which continues to own the suite until the PFI contract expires in 2031.

At a meeting of the Sussex Police and Crime Panel last month, Chichester district councillor Roy Briscoe asked the commissioner whether the PFI scheme was good value for money.

Mrs Bourne said: “This was signed many, many years before I came into office.

“For all the reasons we know around PFIs, probably with the benefit of hindsight it might not have been the decision I would make today.”

She added: “However, we have done the best with what we have.”

Mrs Bourne acknowledged that the Chichester suite was not being used but said: “What we’ve just done though is spend quite a lot of money upgrading the one in Hastings because it was felt operationally that that was a requirement that was needed... It’s a really good unit now.”

SEE MORE: Hastings Custody Centre reopens after 22-month closure

Ian McCulloch, chief finance officer, said the team was in discussions to renegotiate the terms of the PFI contract, which continues to run for another 12 years.

He said the force had ‘effectively mothballed’ the Chichester site, with detainees instead being taken to a facility in Worthing.

“However, it does have the capacity to be opened up at short notice should they require it,” he said.

He said the costs associated with the Chichester custody service had moved to Worthing, adding: “We are effectively left with – let’s say – the mortgage to pay on Chichester which is covered off by credits or payments that we get by the Home Office.”

The total cost of the scheme over the 30 years, which includes building and running the facilities, is set to be £341million.

View an interactive version of our investigation into PFI schemes here.