MPs have called for plans to close local custody suites across County Durham and Darlington to be put on hold until a new Police Crime and Victims Commissioner is elected.

Parliamentary representatives of Bishop Auckland, Darlington, North West Durham and Sedgefield met with Home Secretary Priti Patel to raise their concerns about the decision by Acting PCVC Steve White to close all existing custody suites and build one centralised suite.

MPs made her aware of the decision to go ahead with a £21 million project to build the new custody facility at Spennymoor.

READ MORE: PCVC defends plans to close custody suites in County Durham and Darlington

They also co-wrote a letter with Conservative Party Candidate for Durham & Darlington PCVC, George Jabbour to Mr White.

In the letter they voice their serious concerns about the proposal to close the custody suites at Bishop Auckland, Durham, Peterlee and Darlington police stations, as part of the proposals.

Darlington MP Peter Gibson said: “I am concerned that this move to one facility, robbing Darlington of its recently upgraded custody facility, will take bobbies off the beat and have a damaging impact on the community I serve.

“It was important to raise this with Home Secretary and that was why my colleagues and I sought an urgent meeting with her this week.”

Acting PCVC Steve White assumed the role following the death of elected PCVC Ron Hogg. There was due to be an election in May, but it was postponed due to the ongoing pandemic.

The MPs and Mr Jabbour George believe the decision on the custody suites should be made by a new, democratically-elected PCVC with a mandate to make “such an impactful decision”, in conjunction with a full review of the force’s estates.

Concerns have also been raised by Labour MP’s and the party’s candidate for PCVC Councillor Joy Allen.

Writing to Mr White she said people were particularly critical about the lack of consultation and engagement.

She wrote: “I am certainly not to post to modernising the existing custody suites and addressing concerns highlighted in recent inspections but your decision to centralised custody provision at a cost of £20,without any transparency or scrutiny in the decision-making process is very alarming.

“People have expressed their concerns to me about the accessibility of a single custody suite covering the whole of County Durham and Darlington particularly in regard to family legal visits and transfer to and from magistrates courts.

“I think is an error of judgement for you as an acting unelected police and crime commissioner to have taken this decision without public consultation beforehand and only months before the election.

“I believe that as a result of the many concerns that have been expressed to me the current two proposal should be halted and deferred until after the PCC elections next year.

"The newly-elected police and crime commissioner will have the democratic mandate to make long-term strategic decisions and ensure that any proposals regarding the estate are fully and openly consulted on.”

Background to plans to create new custody suite

A report released a year ago found police custody cells in County Durham to be outdated and not properly staffed.

Inspectors raised concerns about staffing levels at Durham Police’s custody cells following an unannounced visit in July 2019.

The report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services found a shortage of staffing was hindering the effective management of the suites and poor conduct of reviews of detention.

It said: “Custody staff were often stretched and unable to carry out all the tasks required or meet detainee needs promptly – for example, detainees waiting longer than necessary to be released. This was compounded by a lack of day-to-day supervision in the suites.

“The staffing arrangements were not sustainable for delivering custody services in the future and to achieve the outcomes expected for detainees.”

However, the report added: “Despite custody staff being under significant pressure at times, they showed a respectful and caring attitude to detainees.

“This helped to mitigate the inability always to meet detainees’ needs promptly, and the impact of some of the poor physical conditions in suites.”

Inspectors found the cells were dated and in need of major refurbishment but added they were kept clean.

The force was praised for its work in keeping children and vulnerable adults from entering custody.

Durham Police has 15 cells in both Durham and Darlington, 14 cells in Peterlee and nine in Bishop Auckland.

They are staffed by 26 custody sergeants and 32 detention officers but because of absences, inspectors found there was a reliance on overtime.

A Durham Police spokesman said at the time: “We are pleased with the positive comments made by the inspectors around the attitude of our staff and the safe delivery of custody, but we also accept the concerns which have been raised in this report.

“In recent months we have taken a number of steps to mitigate some of those concerns, including addressing issues around staff numbers and greater investment in our custody suites. However, there are longer term issues which need consideration and we are in the process of planning for the future of our custody facilities”