Almost two years ago, I told the Chief Constable ‘we need a plan ‘B’. Gloucestershire Police had to be viable and able to operate effectively with not just tens but possibly even scores fewer officers and staff. In other words, ‘the worst case scenario’.
From that moment on, a joint team comprising the Constabulary and my office has been working on the plan and now we are as ready as we can be given the uncertainty of what we can expect from the next Government’s austerity package over the next four years.
Make no mistake we can deliver this plan – and the savings – but the real cost may be high. The timeline goes something like this. First, I am confident we will deliver more for less; then a period of delivering the same for less and, finally, when reality kicks-in, it will be less for less. That is the way all businesses work. We all know the 50p chocolate bar just gets smaller not cheaper. Unfortunately, there is no sugar-coating the options for British policing.
With police budgets set to tumble it’s hardly surprising that the call for supersize police forces raises its head yet again. The argument that bigger must be better and cheaper is frequently heard but seldom proved. The argument appears compelling until you start to question why the bigger, and indeed the biggest, forces are in no better financial shape than us and in many cases, in a far worse financial position than many smaller forces?
Gloucestershire is one of the smaller forces which less informed commentators seem to think would benefit from amalgamation with a ‘bigger brother’. And yet, after 175 years, is in remarkably good shape. It is well prepared and the perfect size to be accountable and relevant to the public it serves. Gloucestershire could with some confidence retreat into the ark, batten down the hatches, weather the financial storm and survive.
Supersize forces, the super tankers commonly known as regional forces favoured by some including the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police (MPS), are put forward as the solution, but little mention is made of how this would deal with 20% cuts we all anticipate. The MPS, the Commissioner’s own force, proposes no mergers for itself, not even with the City of London police who cover a mere one square mile in the heart of the capital. Surely, this begs the question, how will our largest force survive?
Few people, if any, identify with regions and the south west is no exception. Cornwall is a place I love and go on holiday, but from a policing perspective is irrelevant to Gloucestershire. Surely the configuration of forces should be based upon detailed analysis and public opinion. The proposed regional forces suggested by Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe are the old historic ACPO regions with no evidence to demonstrate relevance to 2015 and beyond.
Smaller forces like Gloucestershire are agile and accountable, relevant to the public they serve and tuned-in to local opinion and need. I want Gloucestershire to have its cake and eat it and I also want the benefits of being part of one of the biggest policing organisations in Europe or indeed the world. Does anyone really believe Gwent single handily policed the NATO summit or Gloucestershire the protests at the Fairford Airbase during the Iraq war or the two pilot badger culls? Of course not.
The creation of supersize forces would be little more than a bigger version of the same and not provide what the public time and again tell us they want – local policing.
In my view, a better solution would be a national policing structure under which local federated forces can thrive. A National Police Board should be created that takes responsibility for all police ICT systems, for it is unbelievable that there is still no national police IT strategy. With the board procuring the very best deals for the thousands of cars, vans and uniforms we collectively buy every year, tens of millions could be saved. The national board would manage and coordinate the response to serious, organised and cybercrime, and all the other strategic elements of policing that are necessary for a nation to protect its citizens.
The most important function of a National Police Board should be to allow local forces – good viable forces like Gloucestershire – to get on with what the public repeatedly tell us they want – local policing, accountable and relevant to them.
This article also appeared in a recent edition of the Western Daily Press