After years of warnings, the gradual disappearance of Police Officers and PCSOs from our streets, with all of its predictable consequences, is starting to gain wider recognition. Even our local Police and Crime Commissioner, after years of saying operational matters were none of her business (perhaps not, but her constituents might expect her to take an active interest), has started to question how far reductions in frontline police numbers is really nothing to worry about.
The role of the PCC is to hold the Chief Constable to account and to set the budget for Sussex Police, they are in turn held to account by the Sussex Police and Crime Panel, which is comprised of representatives of all of the local councils. Since Labour regained control of Crawley Borough Council, the town has been represented on the panel first by Cllr Chris Oxlade, then by myself and now by Cllr Michael Jones (although I remain the substitute, in large part because I enjoy reading the financial paperwork). Despite having had three representatives on the panel, we have maintained a consistent line on the Budget: why are we running a budget surplus in the millions while cutting the frontline policing budget?
Remarkably, despite Crawley Labour publicising this widely, the public doesn’t appear to have picked up that this is happening. However, reading through the paperwork of today’s meeting someone does appear to have noticed: the police. The revised Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS) includes a number of changes, for a start they now actually acknowledge that there will be a precept increase over that period, not originally including this had helped to hide the scale of the projected budget surplus and means that the savings target can be cut by a quarter. This also means that as Labour has been arguing for years, they can keep more money going to frontline policing for longer by reprofiling the budget savings for following years.
At the same time they’re putting more money into reserves which, while it is possible to argue this should also be spent on maintaining policing (although, once it’s gone it’s gone), is a positive since their capital programme was going to totally drain them over the course of the initial MTFS, even so the sale of existing police buildings is still likely to be needed for future capital spending.
Even so, that does still mean the budget for community policing will diminish, albeit with a year’s delay. Let’s be clear, that this is a choice, whether or not it is the right one to make. The precept increase should be enough combined with the grant to maintain existing police spending power, what it won’t fund is changes to policing and there is a real push now to focus on online/high tech crimes and the money for that has to come from other forms of policing. Maybe it’s the right choice, maybe it’s not? I know many residents value the role of community policing, not only dealing with criminal activity but anti-social behaviour and despite the police having the only powers to take action on a lot of these cases, insufficient capacity now means that many of these issues are now simply being left. That’s a real impact on people’s lives. I don’t doubt that new technology forces changes to policing, but isn’t one of the virtues of the internet its global nature and wouldn’t such crimes be better dealt with centrally, where we can benefit from economies of scale which could not only deliver better outcomes in tackling cyber-crime but help to retain more money for frontline policing?
Like I said, it’s ultimately all of this a choice, but unfortunately the choice doesn’t really appear to be in the hands of the local communities being left to fend for themselves.