The home secretary has signalled that she will never approve the use of water cannon on the streets of England and Wales, fearing it may damage police legitimacy and the principle of policing by consent.

Explaining her rejection of an application for their use that was backed by the London mayor, Boris Johnson, Theresa May said police in the UK should never routinely carry guns or use military-style equipment.

Johnson had already bought three second-hand water cannon units from Germany, hoping May would authorise their use. But it emerged last week that the units were riddled with faults, and May said on Thursday that she would not permit them to be used, even if the 67 faults were rectified.

During a speech in Brixton, south London, in which she promised to subject policing to a raft of further radical reform, May said: “Our police have never and will never routinely carry guns or hide behind military-style equipment.”

On her rejection of the use of water cannon, she said: “I was also acutely conscious of the potential impact of water cannon on perceptions of police legitimacy and the very principle of policing by consent.”

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