Anthony Brand, Researcher, NLGN
Should police authorities be dissolved and their responsibilities transferred over to local authorities? Anthony Brand from New Local Government Network believes that should be the case to improve local involvement and accountability.
Crime is the number one issue in Britain for 40% of the population, up from 25% 10 years ago. Yet only a third of people see the police performance as good or very good. One in five (20%) say they never go out alone after dark in their local area. Local authorities can play a key role in bridging the widening gap between police performance and its relationship with the communities it serves.
Policing has evolved from a largely local service, managed by local Watch Committees and funded by local government, to become a huge, unwieldy and semi-accountable state function. Many Police Authorities do a reasonable job given their limited powers but the Police remain for the large part disconnected from other local services and from local people.
Recent policies such as Neighbourhood Policing, Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships and Local Strategic Partnerships have achieved some realignment and integration but their success is variable. They have also spawned a large and complex network of associated panels and teams that further blur the lines between citizen and police force.
This disconnect is a key driver of dissatisfaction with the police. Despite consistently falling crime rates, research suggests that the public are generally still sceptical of the police’s effectiveness. Fear of crime remains high and the perception is that local priorities too often lose out to national targets and policies. All stakeholders seem in agreement that the solution is to enable local people to have a real role in setting local policing priorities and to rigorously hold their local police to account for delivery. One of the key strands in Ronnie Flanagan’s ongoing police review is to ensure that the public are driving local policing priorities and to improve local involvement and accountability.
Meanwhile, councils, the fulcrum for local strategies and service delivery, have relatively limited influence in this area. Though local authorities are funding a significant proportion of the police budget they have little leverage over what the police actually do in their area.
In response, policy-makers are recommending ideas such as elected police authorities or elected local sheriff’s in order to strengthen the community role in policing. Elected sheriffs have proved popular and successful in parts of the US but would they be effective here?
At NLGN we have long argued for the devolution of powers and responsibilities to local councils and communities. We believe that only at the very local level can decision-making and policy reflect and respond to the varied issues that impact on different local communities. So, while we have some sympathy for those desiring an independently elected police leader we argue that this would not be the best way forward. We believe such a system has several flaws. It might:
- Test the public patience with elections;
- Introduce additional bureaucracy;
- Empower new, mandated politicians with narrow sets of public policy foci;
- Create over-lapping legitimate structures that compete for influence.
Instead, we argue that strengthening the role of existing local authorities in policing would deliver visible local police accountability, increase efficiency, improve service co-ordination, strengthen community engagement, target local crime more effectively and create a police force that is truly embedded within the local community it serves. Council Leaders, as the figurehead for local democracy and directly accountable to the public vote, should lead any such system.
In our research paper, Your Police or Mine?, we recommend a series of reforms that we believe will deliver on this promise. We suggest that:
- Police Authority and/or Basic Command Unit (BCU) boundaries be made coterminous with local authorities’.
- Police Authorities be abolished and their functions taken on by upper-tier local authorities, led by local Leaders in consultation with community partners and a reformed Community Safety Partnership.
- Council Leaders, in consultation with their CSP, should set police budgets and hold police chiefs to account.
- Local Leaders, with the CSP, should set out police priorities, plans and targets for their area within a reformed Community Strategy that reports regularly to the communities it serves.
- The complex and disconnected network of existing community safety groups be streamlined and embedded within the CSP.
The exact model of accountability will vary from area to area as groupings of metropolitan councils will require a slightly different framework to two-tier areas. Of course, London will be different again. But the principal stands – that the public, through their locally elected leaders, should be once again put back at the heart of community safety and policing.
We believe that the changes above can release millions for investment in frontline policing, better co-ordinate community safety related services, improve community engagement mechanisms and deliver the visible, democratic accountability necessary to increase public satisfaction and reduce fear of crime.