Policing is one of those things that you take for granted, like the other emergency services. It’s the ultimate insurance policy. You hope you never need the assistance but when you do you want the best possible service. With the current planned increase of 20% in our population thanks to the new houses now is the right time to do a healthcheck on the Police service Ashbourne receives and take a look into the near future.
I don’t think I have ever really thought about it before but Ashbourne seems recently to be awash with crime. In a typical month there are around 50 reported crimes in the town and immediate surrounding area with the main categories being violent crime and drugs. Of course we have had the occasional scuffles in the town before and the issues with boy racers. We have had broken windows and vandalism to cars and the skatepark. Over the last eighteen months though the instances of residential breakins and thefts from commercial properties overnight have risen in waves.
There were about 61,000 crimes in Derbyshire in 2012 and the annual budget for Derbyshire Police was roughly £175m. People costs were about £142m. In summary we account for around 1% of all crime in the county and 1% of the population so we should expect around £1.75m spent on our safety if all things were equal. Sadly things aren’t that simple. £1.75m should go a long way in protecting out town. The city of Derby and towns such as Chesterfield probably do need a disproportionate amount of policing but they should also get economies of scale.
A further pressure is that Derbyshire Police are no different than any other part of the public sector – we are now emerging from a recession but there are bills to be paid. The police are being asked to reduce their funding in Derbyshire and there have been cuts of over 10% in the last two years. Police numbers for Derbyshire as a whole are just over 3500 of which 1900 are police officers. The remainder are PCSOs, Special Constables and administrative staff. Despite this the need to find more savings continues. In 2012 opening hours were cut in response to the demand from visitors to the police station (now termed an Enquiry Office). It is now open between 10am and 2pm weekdays. Outside of those times there is an emergency phone on the wall outside and the regular emergency and non-emergency numbers. The nearest other enquiry offices are in Belper, Cheadle and Bakewell. Bakewell is feeling distinctly nervous. The opening times of their enquiry office are 9am to 1pm Monday to Saturday and also Bank Holidays during the season but a local petition has received over a thousand signatures. The reason? A police spokesman said: “The force is currently undertaking an intensive priority–based budgeting (PBB) process, which will examine every single aspect of how the organisation operates, in order to identify options for reducing costs and improving efficiency to meet demand and risk in the face of unprecedented financial challenges.” Specifically in the Derbyshire Police force plan is the stated intent to look at closing the Enquiry Offices which are least used.
If Bakewell is feeling nervous shouldn’t we feel the same? Ashbourne is a less busy town than Bakewell and presumably has a lower crime rate. Our demand and our risk are both lower than our nearest other Derbyshire Dales police station. It seems to me though that the amount of crime in Ashbourne is inversely proportional to the opening times of the Police Station. Since the reduced opening times we have had waves of burglaries from houses, thefts from garden sheds, break-ins at businesses in the town, vandalism of the skate park and the arson at the Leisure Centre. There was an excellent observation recently from Luke Le Grice in a letter to the Ashbourne News Telegraph in which he expressed disappointment with the closure of the skate park due to vandalism but also dissatisfaction with the police response to it. The lack of a local presence in Ashbourne in the summer evenings meant that the skaters themselves were expected to deal with the problem. There are many things which are best handled by the community but dealing with crime is not one of them. In most industries the trend is to use crowd sourcing to provide a lower cost customer service. Policing isn’t an industry though – we can reasonably be expected to be vigilant and assist with social media but we can’t arrest the criminals and solve crime.
This isn’t a criticism of our local police officers or of the police in general. I imagine they share the dismay at the shrinking resources available to them. When we are victims of crime we want the support of someone quickly who can give us a sense of security and who stands a chance of finding the culprit. This is much easier when we are dealing with officers who know Ashbourne intimately – who know the vulnerabilities, know the “wrong uns” and know who to talk to. What we definitely don’t want is someone who is going to provide a “Police Direct” call centre to decide whether we are worthy of a visit and decide when there is a convenient appointment. We don’t want to have to make a trip to Bakewell to get a face-to-face opportunity. Maybe, just maybe, lack of demand (presumably meaning visits) for an Enquiry Centre is a sign of success not a sign of failure. Having a presence in the town is deterring crime and therefore keeping the demand down. Just because you never claim it doesn’t mean you don’t need an insurance policy.
It is good that the Police service is adjusting to the changing nature of crime in the 21st century. It is good that they are looking at efficiency at the same time but efficiency is about doing the same job more efficiently not about reducing the grade of service. The building in Compton may not be right for the modern Ashbourne police service. It may have a good rental/development opportunity as something else while the Enquiry Office (if we really can’t call it a Police Station) could move to another property better fit for purpose. It could offer lower running costs and longer opening times. One look at the Derbyshire Police website suggests more of a commercial business than it does a Government department. Is this about making the police more transparent and accessible or is it the thin end of a wedge we should be concerned about?
The National Health Service features in every election campaign at Local or National Level. It is recognised in Britain that part of the inalienable contract between us and our elected representatives is that our health will be looked after throughout our lives regardless of what we can afford. I would put Defence and Policing in the same category. We have a right to demand it is run efficiently but we should expect that, when we feel threatened or have had a crime committed against us, someone qualified and empowered will come and deal with it. This is the only way to minimise crime and avoid a vigilante society. The consequence is that we may have to pay more or that cuts would be made elsewhere but it is one of the few non-negotiable essentials for a civilised society. We may have already advanced too far but should we follow Bakewell’s protesting lead to make sure we don’t go further down the wrong path?
In the meantime can I make a plea to all the local ne’er-do-wells and criminals? Could you please restrict your activities in Ashbourne to weekdays between 10am and 2pm and go elsewhere outside those times.