Abolishing Police Authorities
7 December, 2007

Dick Sorabji, Deputy Director, NLGN
Public Finance

As Sir Ronnie Flanagan completes his review of policing he should recommend abolition of Police Authorities moving their powers to elected council leaders. Greater accountability is one of Flanagan’s four themes. It is the golden thread that will help to deliver the other three; reducing bureaucracy, improving neighbourhood policing and better use of resources.

Because they are appointed, Police Authorities lack the power to argue against a one size fits all approach to policing. They lack the visibility to be accountable to the community. They have been overtaken by other reforms that duplicate many of their functions.

In Your Police or Mine? NLGN propose that Police Authorities, including the MPA be abolished. The duty to set policing priorities and set the budget to pay for them would be transferred to council leaders. Leaders would set those priorities in consultation with the Community Safety Partnerships (CSPs) that have already been created in every county and city. Public involvement would be made easier using the neighbourhood level interface with the police as the basic building block for membership of CSPs.

Boundaries are always an issue. Many counties match the Police Authority area and so the transfer of duties would be to the county council. Elsewhere the Basic Command Units (BCU) within a police authority is a better fit and council leaders would take on these duties for the BCU.

London is a special case with both local and national policing responsibilities. The appointed MPA would be abolished. Council leaders would take the lead on local policing priorities and budgets in each of London’s 32 BCUs. The London Mayor would absorb the MPA’s remaining management role. London’s council leaders collectively would scrutinise the Metropolitan Police Service. This forum would be empowered to trigger a re-think by the Mayor if two thirds of council leaders call for action.

But why will changes to the balance of power within the state make a difference that people actually notice and care about?

Flanagan’s interim report found an increase in police bureaucracy driven by risk aversion. Doing it ‘by the book’ distorts policing by creating a national rule for everything. The police need more discretion, but it is hard for them to argue for it. The new regime will ensure that council leaders become champions of police discretion when it is justified by local circumstances.

National targets are the most extreme version of this problem. For example Peterborough has recently suffered from organised crime in sex-trafficking. Local police are fighting back, but risk penalties for failing to focus on national targets. NLGN’s reforms reinforce the new Local Area Agreements empowering councils to amend national targets to fit local choices.

Improved neighbourhood policing flows from closer links to council leaders. Westminster council’s CivicWatch not only helped cut crime by 28% in four years, but reduced the fear of crime with 24% more people feeling that it is safe to go out after dark. Putting all council leaders at the heart of policing priorities will build on this success.

Flanagan argues that police spending must be better prioritised. National government reforms in the last three years have duplicated many police authority activities including the duty on councils to scrutinise policing. Transferring duties to council leaders will eliminate this double spending. It will also encourage greater use of shared services, so releasing more cash for front line staff.

In addition it will improve accountability for taxes raised. Today 21% of police spending is added to council tax via a ‘precept’. The public has no say in these decisions on council tax. NLGN reforms will ensure that the public can hold councils to account for adequately funding the police.

Most expensive is the £11.5m spent by the MPA. London is different and scrutiny here concerns regional and national crime as well. London’s Mayor has the mandate to lead that process and the authority to influence at national level. The Mayor would be strengthened by absorbing the managerial functions of the MPA.

Strong leadership will benefit London, but it demands stronger independent scrutiny. When all MPA members are appointed by the Mayor or the Home Secretary their scrutiny can never be independent. Council leaders have the authority, the local connections and the visibility to hold the Mayor to account on behalf of Londoners.

Sir Ronnie Flanagan argued that policing is “much too important to be left to the police alone” and that citizens should have the “means to rigorously hold their police to account”. Better accountability will unlock his other priorities, cutting bureaucracy, more relevant spending priorities and improved neighbourhood policing. Replacing appointed Police Authorities with elected council leaders is the key to meeting the needs of both police and public.