THERE could not have been a less rewarding job in British politics than that of Police Commissioner for South Yorkshire when Alan Billings was elected late in 2014.
He inherited a catalogue of disasters from the previous incumbent, Shaun Wright, in whom public confidence had plummeted before he was forced to resign as a result of the Rotherham grooming scandal. His initial determination to stay in the post attracted criticism from all political parties and all sections of the community.
South Yorkshire Police were the most under-fire force in the country. They faced stinging criticism, along with Rotherham Council, for failing the victims of child exploitation and sexual abuse in terms of their attitude to the victims, failure to take them seriously and not pursuing the criminals involved.
The Hillsborough Inquiry had also exposed serious misdemeanours during and following that tragic event. There was also a renewed call for an inquiry into the policing of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, particularly the “Battle of Orgreave.” Morale among police officers was said to be at an all-time low and the exit of Shaun Wright left question marks over the future of the force itself.
It was against that background that Alan Billings went into the election as the underdog. Some political commentators, including myself, believed that Ukip would triumph. That was Ukip’s mistake. Their certainty that they would win led to them taking the election for granted with poor, ground-level campaigning and an underperforming candidate. The ensuing Labour victory was therefore a surprise to most people.
So, now 100 days into the post, how has the new commissioner performed?
Dr Billings has a background in local government, youth justice and is a retired Anglican priest. He was formerly the director of the Centre for Ethics and Religion at Lancaster University. He was seen by Labour as the right person, not only to steady the ship, but to rebuild public confidence in South Yorkshire Police and to make them both transparent and accountable to the communities they serve.
In his first hundred days that is exactly what he has set out to do and which he has largely achieved. The appointment of a panel of ethics advisers made up of respected figures from across South Yorkshire has been designed to give the public confidence that the commissioner will listen to criticisms rather than “batten down the hatches”.
His financial experience, drawn from local government and negotiations with central government, is proving invaluable in addressing the serious challenges facing the force, exacerbated by a much reduced budget settlement. Anecdotally, morale in the force, from street level through to senior ranks, is said to have improved under Dr Billings’ calm and considered leadership.
The fact that Dr Billings is towards the end of his political career means that he can concentrate on the job in hand, rather than have one eye on Westminster. He has engaged with different parts of the community in a way that more politically ambitious candidates would have found difficult.
What South Yorkshire Police needs is a period of time without any headlines and for the quiet work to go on behind the scenes to transform the culture of the force. In his first hundred days, Dr Billings has laid the groundwork for this. However there remain serious challenges, not least in terms of fewer resources and the financial drain stemming from the current investigations into Rotherham, Hillsborough and so on, which mean that South Yorkshire Police will need significant restructuring. The nature of reported crime is also changing, with an increase in sexual assaults and abuse. This requires different skills and extensive training. The commissioner will need to take the majority of the force with him to make these changes work and in doing so he will need to convince rank and file officers that he is prepared to defend the reputation of the force even under the most difficult of circumstances.
The ultimate test for the police commissioner, if the role is still in existence, will be in how he handles the fallout from the different investigations into Hillsborough due to report in 2016.
Despite the skills and reputation that Dr Billings brings to the role, his future may well rest on events over which he has no responsibility or, ultimately, control.
Alan McGauley is principal lecturer in politics at Sheffield Hallam University.