A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Ashbourne’s policing. I made the case then that policing is not one of those things we can cut without consequences. Since then our policing is basing itself out of Matlock, Theresa May has raised the prospect of consolidating aspects of the emergency services and sharing resources and there is continued discussion about closing the Ashbourne Police Station. It strikes me that there is a lot of “doing” as individual budget owners desperately try and hit targets without a wider consideration of true total cost.
For example all the talk of Ashbourne’s police station moving or closing is a bit premature. The police station has a rental agreement until 2020 with no break points before then. The remaining rent due comes to around £125,000 and when/if it is vacated it will need to be restored to its former glories which will add to the bill. Considering the availability of parking and the central location that seems like a pretty low cost option and I believe the landlord is willing to negotiate the rent if someone will talk to him. Leaving it empty and paying the outstanding rent seems like a shocking waste. I assume that in some way starting shifts in Matlock must save some money somewhere on one particular budget but right now it looks like Ashbourne is going to get a reduced service and we are all as taxpayers going to pay a hefty price for the privilege.
Police and Crime Commissioners around the country have got their hands full. Part of their new role is budget responsibility – making sure the books balance. With the recent recession we’ve all been in it together and we’ve all had to take a share of the pain. The police have not escaped the cuts and so something has to give. Before the PCCs decide exactly what has to give they have to consider the future. The nature of crime they have to fight against is changing. We live in an age of convenience and police and criminals have had their life made easier too. The social media and e-enabled world provides more traceability, more data…more evidence! Every part of the business world is obsessed with Big Data these days. If only we could harness it all we could solve crime easier but the very same technology means criminals can commit crime without leaving their armchairs. You used to be able to see ne’er-do-wells. They almost wore the stereotypical stripey jumpers by behaving shiftily and leaving physical clues. These days they sit in flats in front of screens and can be anywhere in the world. Whether it’s paedophiles, terrorists or fraudsters the cost of detection is high and the effort in committing is low. For all major cities there is a focus on trafficking and abuse. There is a huge focus from most police forces in detecting and destroying the gangs behind it. The ease of committing crime has never been higher and yet budgets for the police are only set as an increment on prior years. I really feel sorry for the police. Because of how society has changed they have taken on roles which used to be done by the Army or by us. In return they have had to worry a little less about football hooliganism but everything else has stayed the same.
This sounds a grim picture but the good news is that, in Britain and around the Western world, crime is falling. There are lots of explanations. Economists would argue that when there is less money around there are less opportunities to steal expensive gadgets and drugs are less in demand. Perhaps it is due to improvements in security technology. Car theft has fallen in particular due to the improvement in security devices fitted by manufacturers – integrated radios, immobilisers and no more lock buttons. What seems clear is that there are fewer opportunities for criminals. We have changed our behaviours sadly to make ourselves less sociable, less welcoming and less trusting. Perhaps even it is the record number of criminals behind bars despite HMP Sudbury’s best efforts. The simplistic approach for a PCC (or a cash-strapped Chancellor) would be to look at the stats and draw the simple conclusion – reduced crimes need fewer police.
The more difficult, and more expensive view says that policing works. The biggest factor in reducing the crime figures is improvements in policing methods. Sharing of methods and intelligence worldwide has allowed police forces to be much more focussed in where resource is being applied. They have focused on hotspots, provided prevention advice and used data for profiling more than ever before. The PCC should draw the conclusion that reduced crimes are the direct consequence of smarter policing. Take the police away and the crime will increase again.
And so to Ashbourne. Statistics are all well and good but ultimately crime is best viewed from a personal perspective. In my time in Ashbourne I haven’t felt as vulnerable to crime as I do now. Just as the police have a method we have criminals who have a proven formula. The retailers, pubs and salons in the town have been attacked in a series of overnight raids. The Town Council discussed a mass fight in the streets one evening recently which resulted in one casualty. Prior to that we had a string of house break-ins and currently sheds are being targeted. The fire at the Leisure Centre has caused disruption and jobs. But despite this, Ashbourne’s policing is being reduced for no other reason than budgetary cuts. We shouldn’t even be looking at the rent for the police station or the home base for our officers. What is galling is the lack of dialogue and the lack of any real say. It may well be that the feel-good of a police presence is costly and ineffective. It may be that we will actually get a better service by our officers starting their shifts in Matlock, though I can’t imagine how that possibly can work without costing more; but no-one is presenting the positive side of the argument.
It appears to be a fait accomplis by Central Government. I have always thought that some things should be non-negotiable. Our education system, health, our national and local security, prisons, ambulance and fire services are essential and whatever the cost we have to pay it. They aren’t beyond reproach or saintly though, we have a right to expect efficiency and accountability and the track record for the Public Sector isn’t great in this regard. In my view no Government should have even the option of reducing or changing them without a referendum. Therefore the bill to maintain the standards we need are non-negotiable too…and should be paid 100% out of our rates which will vary to make sure the bills are met. We could even offer a rate subsidy to employees in those services to make it a more attractive option. What this would do is make us realise just how much they cost and how expensive or valuable they are. We can all then think about the part we play in making those bills so high by our own actions and the actions of those around us. Most importantly we ensure that we protect some of the core attributes that define us as a nation. In Ashbourne we would get the service we need and be able to pay our way to get it.
This then leaves our elections to discuss all the other issues knowing the NHS (along with the other key services) was truly safe in our hands. Our income tax levels would be set according to Government policy spending plans. Because the overall spend would be lower with all the essential services taken out we would have a much clearer view of what Messrs Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Farage want to spend money on and could vote accordingly.
Of course this is all pie in the sky and we are still left with crime in Ashbourne, budget cuts and a police station with a price tag for the next few years. All I ask is that someone makes a clear statement on what the consequences of changing our policing levels. If the answer is that we will get 95% of the service we used to get but save £250,000 a year I’d rather know. We can all then use that information in judging our Government and PCC. Personally, I’d rather pay the bill.