PCCs should be allowed to address the financial challenges of delivering modern policing
I am clear that our police forces need to be more efficient and effective to meet the challenges of keeping our communities safe in the Twenty-First Century. Police and Crime Commissioners are working closely with Chief Constables to ensure policing resources are intelligently aligned against demand, tackling threat, risk and harm wherever it occurs.
However, the significant differences in the funding of our 43 police forces risks undermining the endeavours of forces such as Essex Police which is already one of the leanest and most efficient in the country.
Since being elected as Police and Crime Commissioner for Essex, I have been astonished at the complexity and wide variations in funding of our 43 police forces.
As the recent National Audit Office (NAO) report into the financial sustainability of police forces makes clear, there is also no clear understanding across the country of how resources are matched against demand to deliver the most effective policing possible. Indeed, the NAO finds that only about 36 per cent of police resources are used on crime or Anti-Social Behaviour related incidents.
Here in Essex, I have publicly described the force’s funding situation from April 2017 onwards as perilous. To explain this judgement, I need to describe the funding situation in the round.
Across the country, there is over £1.8 billion sitting in police force financial reserves. Eleven police forces have reserves which are 25 per cent or more of their net revenue. Essex Police has the lowest overall revenue reserves in the country, at around £25.5 million or 9% of our revenue budget. See Appendix E, on page 18 of the Police and Crime Panel paper linked here, for a national comparison.
As PCC, I will continue to ensure that Essex Police holds a responsible level of reserves to enable the force to respond professionally to major unplanned events. However, I do not think it is right that I should sit on additional reserves of public money unless I have validated plans to spend those funds in the foreseeable future.
I therefore share the concern of the NAO that £1.8 billion of public money is sitting in the reserves of police forces across England and Wales at a time of austerity. My view is that PCCs should be required to explain their need for those reserves. The Home Secretary could decide to adjust the policing grant to any force with general reserves that cannot be justified.
One of the consequences of some forces having large general reserves is that if government requires all forces to make further savings, which seems inevitable, those forces will be able to use their reserves to protect front line policing, perhaps without seeking the maximum efficiencies which many of us are delivering. At the same time other forces, which do not have such large general reserves, will have to meet cuts in funding by losing further police officers and police staff from their ranks.
Essex is firmly in this latter category, having lost over 300 police officers and almost 200 PCSOs since 2010-11. Our situation is exacerbated by two further factors: strange anomalies in the central government funding formula for police forces; and the fact that Essex has the second lowest precept, the portion of council tax used to fund policing, of any shire force in the country.
From my very first day, given the financial challenges faced in our county, I have encouraged Essex Police to gain a better understanding of the relationship between demand on police time and how we use our resources to keep our communities safe. A major restructure of policing in our county has been driven by a detailed analysis of demand across our complicated mix of rural and urban areas, in a county which borders London and has a long coastline. That restructure continues to be informed by the emerging challenges of hidden harms, crimes which have been historically under-reported such as domestic abuse, child abuse and cyber crime.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) has found that Essex has one of the most efficient police forces in the country, delivering better value for money than most other forces. I am confident that Chief Constable Stephen Kavanagh, who I appointed, is leading innovative and pioneering work to deliver highly professional policing which seeks to tackle serious harm and work with partner agencies such as women’s refuges, rape crisis centres and local authorities to safeguard and support victims. I have used a small part of the overall policing and community safety budget to provide seed funding to initiatives which work to prevent harm, to turn people’s lives around and to reduce demand on police time. As the NAO report makes clear, only 36% of police time is spent dealing with crime and ASB.
I am leading this work, with the Chief Constable, because I believe it is the right thing to do: to modernise policing and ensure the public purse is being used effectively and efficiently. I believe Essex Police will emerge as a stronger, if inevitably leaner, force and one which no longer does some of the things which the public expected from police officers in times of plenty. But I wonder whether some of those forces who are able to absorb the budget cuts through their high level of reserves or high policing precept are on the same journey towards modern, demand and intelligence-led policing.
I have called for the cap on increases in the precept to be removed to enable PCCs to make a responsible judgement as to the level of council tax funding of policing in their force area. Here in Essex, my judgement is that I should seek to increase the precept by around 20 per cent, or 50 pence per week for a Band D property owner.
This would inevitably lead to vigorous challenge, but I cannot see how it is responsible for our policing precept to be so far below the average for the shire counties. Even with the increase I might propose, we would still be paying less through our council taxes towards policing than the average across the country.
As a practical idea to address the variation and inequalities of policing funding across England and Wales, my view is that the government should consider allowing the precept cap to be removed where a PCC can demonstrate that:
1) HMIC has found that the force is efficient, delivering value for money;
2) the overall revenue reserves are not significantly above an agreed level required to allow forces to meet exceptional expenditure, unless there are fully validated requirements for those reserves;
3) the council tax precept in the force area is at some level below the national average.
I am not pessimistic. Essex Police will continue to deliver highly effective, professional, policing whilst using public money efficiently. The Chief Constable and I will also continue to invest for the future, even at further cost to policing today because it would be irresponsible not to do so. However, as today’s National Audit Office report shows, all our police forces need to be able to demonstrate how public money is being used responsibly to tackle criminality and support victims. The stakes are incredibly high.
Nick Alston, Police and Crime Commissioner for Essex