Mike Pannett: Rural towns and villages pay the price of police cuts

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It’s no surprise that in the recent National Rural Crime Survey nearly two-thirds of respondents thought that the police weren’t doing a good job and felt less safe as a result. Government soundbites say the police “must do more with less”. The “less” refers to less funding, but the truth is it actually means fewer police officers. More than 12,000 front-line officers in fact, with at least another 15,000 to go over the next two years. That’s on top of 35,000 departing civilian staff, whose work needs to be covered by officers.

The knock-on effect is that police have to put much smaller numbers of officers where the demand is greatest, just to cope with crime and disorder in the cities, towns and sprawling estates. The glaring consequence of this, of course, is that it makes rural areas ripe for the picking.

We’ve recently seen a spate of criminal gangs brazenly ripping out cash machines from walls in quiet rural towns at 4am. After all, the odds of coming across patrolling police officers is pretty slim, and with a police helicopter coming from 100 miles away, escaping into the night is pretty much a certainty. If they can get away with brazen acts like this, what chance of getting caught sneakily stealing fuel, tools, tractors, quad bikes or livestock in the dead of night?

So where are the police at night? Well, behind the scenes the Government is telling the police to forcibly reform. In the face of hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of cuts, senior officers are looking at tearing up the familiar policing model and starting again from scratch.

Terrorism, online fraud and sex offences, all investigatory roles, are the policing priorities of now and the foreseeable future, which means they are getting the lion’s share of finances and resources. The police left over – the visible uniformed officers – simply can’t manage to do as good a job as before when it comes to traditional roles such as patrolling the streets, community policing and maintaining road safety. The creeping effect of this is already being felt in rural communities which increasingly feel they’re being left to fend for themselves. There is a massive issue around the under-reporting of rural crime and figures due out are likely to show that criminals are actively preying on vulnerable rural communities.

The role of the police officers we see around our local communities is vast. Often highly experienced, I call them “the golden thread” when it comes to gathering vital intelligence and building relationships. To simply remove them is disastrous on so many levels.

The harsh reality of the huge reductions to finances and sweeping reorganisation currently facing the police face means those at the top of policing, along with Police Crime Commissioners, are weighing up how they manage and police the greater risk to society. They have to consider the risk represented by rural burglaries and thefts against the threats posed by child exploitation, sex crimes and terrorism.

It’s like having four sick children and only having enough money to take two of them to the doctors. Such an awful predicament doesn’t bode well for rural communities.

So where are we going? Well the police service is being rebuilt – not by choice, but by the dire financial constraints imposed upon it. Some police chiefs have warned that it’s the end of bobbies on the beat, which for the public means the end of police patrols both in cars and on foot. The police who are left out and about will be busy with reactive policing – taking a crime report, taking statements or processing an arrest related to something that has already occurred – rather than having sufficient numbers of police to have prevented the crime in the first place. It’s a dreadful way to work but that’s the reality and what’s now happening.

It’s no wonder crime figures are rising and surveys show reducing confidence in our rural police. Ordinary police officers I know can’t influence any of this. The PCs, sergeants and inspectors are at their wits’ end. Dedicated police officers are run ragged and bogged down with files and investigations (the only thing this government hasn’t reduced is bureaucracy) because now there are only four or five of them policing our towns and villages, whereas four years ago there were 10 or 12.

My real concern is how and where the public fit into this? Who is asking what we think and what we want? Police bosses and the Home Office are identifying amongst themselves what the policing priorities should be are and everything else gets measured on a scale of risk. Where does the theft of tractors and livestock and general rural policing sit on that scale? It’s worrying isn’t it?

I do empathise with the predicament the police bosses find themselves in. In manager-speak, members of the public are known as “stakeholders” and we should be aware of exactly what is at stake. There are fundamental changes going on and we must ensure that we, the stakeholders, are consulted. The transformation of our police service must be done with our consent.

• Mike Pannett is a former North Yorkshire police officer turned best-selling author on rural life and policing. His new book Crime Squad is due to be released later this year.