Drink drivers escaping prosecution as officers have to drive more than an hour to police station

Hayley Dixon
Aberdyfi in North Wales is the town furthest from a custody suite at 66 miles   - Photographer's Choice RF

Drink drivers are getting away with breaking the law because police are having to drive them up to an hour and 45 minutes to the nearest custody cells, it has been warned.

An investigation by the Daily Telegraph has found that officers across England and Wales routinely have to drive suspects for more than an hour before they can process their arrest after a third of all custody suites were closed down.

As well as fears that drink drivers are escaping prosecution as they have sobered up on the journey to the station, it has been warned that officers are opting to drive suspects home or simply giving them a ticking off to save time.

Those living furthest from stations say that they are “forgotten towns” where criminals can do as they please. 

The number of custody suites across the country has fallen by a third since 2010, from 277 to 180. Just three of the 43 police forces in England and Wales did not provide data from 2010.

An analysis of the data, obtained using the Freedom of  Information Act, shows that there are more than 70 towns in England which are more than twenty miles from a police station.

Rural areas have been the hardest hit with officers having to travel long distances often down country roads.

Over the same period, Home Office data shows that the number of arrests has fallen from more than 1.3million in 2009/10 to almost 700,000 in 2017/18.

Officers warn that cuts to police numbers combined with cuts to resources means that if they are forced to make a several hour round trip then there are no bobbies are left on the beat.

Clive Knight, Custody Lead for the Police Federation of England and Wales, said: “It is hard to ignore the knock-on effect the sale of police stations and closures of custody suites has had on policing as a whole.”

He said that the figures show it is a “particular problem” in rural areas where officers are “tied up for hours” as they have to drive for miles, process the detainee and then complete the paperwork.

Mr Knight added: “Even more concerning is in the case of drink-drivers it may also mean offenders ultimately escaping conviction entirely because of the length of time that has passed between the roadside breath test and the evidential sample taken in custody.”

In North Wales many towns are more than an hour to their nearest station, and if officers made an arrest in Aberdyfi they would have to travel more than 66 miles, a journey taking around 1 hour and 45 minutes, to the nearest custody suite in Caernarfon.

In Aberdyfi locals say the lack of facilities is “a joke” whilst in neighbouring Tywyn, which has a huge influx of holiday makers during the summer months, residents say that so-called county lines drug dealing is a particular problem.

Crime is in danger of getting out of control as the area’s two officers cannot cope, they claim. 

Gillian Roberts, 64, who runs a craft shop in the town, said: “It is fast becoming a serious problem. 

“We’ve got vulnerable young people being used to sell drugs here and the police no longer have the resources to deal with the issue.

“If the nearest custody station is almost two hours away, how are they supposed to protect us?

“It takes two officers to transport a suspect, so while they’re on the road to the station there’s no one left to police the town.

“It’s no surprise that as a consequence crimes are going unpunished because officers may not want to travel those kind of distances. Instead, people committing crimes are often just getting a ticking-off. 

“There are some people here now who know they’ll get away with all sorts now because the police won’t be able or willing to drive them all that distance to have them dealt with.”

Katherine Wilson, 73, said the perception that crime is going unpunished has also led to an increase in traffic offences.

“We’re becoming a forgotten town,” she told the Telegraph.

In North Yorkshire officers in some areas have to drive for an hour and a half to the nearest station whilst Northumbria has a number of towns more than an hour and a quarter from the cells and Avon and Somerset, Dorset, and Devon and Cornwall all have areas which are an hour or more.

Inspector Andrew Berry, Chair of Devon & Cornwall Police Federation, warned last month that officers are now at the stage where they “dare not arrest anybody” as there will be no-one left to work the streets.

He said that some officers were opting to drive suspects home rather than to the cells in order to save time.

In many areas they can use another force’s cells if there are operational reasons to do so, but it is not done on a regular basis or simply because of the distance.  

In line with Government guidance forces also have moved toward voluntary attendance where a suspect takes themselves to a police station to avoid an officer having to drive them.

Mr Knight added: “The new Prime Minister and his government must ensure that their commitment to increasing police resources extends, not just to boosting officer numbers, but to the policing infrastructure as well to ensure that this worrying situation is not allowed to worsen.”

Superintendent Richie Green who is responsible for the Gwynedd South area for North Wales Police said that he recognisned that the distance presented a “challenge for my staff working in a rural locality” and it was “one familiar to many rural forces”. He said that they worked with neighbouring forces where appropriate.

North Yorkshire said its facilities were “frequently reviewed” to ensure they were meeting demand and Government requirements.  

Avon and Somerset said that officers working on outlying areas of their force now have enhanced vehicles, fitted with cages to transport prisoners to custody centres.