Mark Burns-Williamson: Why the time is now right to take a serious look at policing

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THE future of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) and legislation surrounding them has been brought into sharp focus recently with events in Rotherham and the by-election due shortly in South Yorkshire.

Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, has also reaffirmed the commitment to abolish PCCs at the Labour Party Conference this week.

But against this backdrop, there needs to be a bigger debate about the sustainability and delivery of policing services, as well as the governance and accountability issues.

We need to be looking with our partners at how we provide improved community services for people of West Yorkshire and the wider region with shrinking budgets and resources, ensuring they are safer and feel safer, rather than who or what is running it all.

We need to redesign the way we deliver services, taking account of the regionalisation and devolved powers agenda in the wake of the Scottish referendum and its implications for the rest of the UK, ensuring policing and wider community safety is part and parcel of that debate.

Essentially, people are more interested in how their local policing service is delivered day to day and what response they receive when required.

Because of the budget trajectories we are all on (the police, emergency services, health, local government and others) and the unprecedented Government cuts the current model isn’t sustainable if you want to maintain frontline delivery.

There are also unprecedented challenges in our communities. These include tackling domestic abuse/violence, child sexual exploitation, counter terrorism, cyber crime, human trafficking and female genital mutilation, as well as keeping on top of anti-social behaviour, domestic burglary and road safety, to name but a few priorities.

I am working to address these issues and have to protect frontline policing over three years. It is right that the success of Neighbourhood Policing Teams should form the bedrock of local policing, but the pressures we face cannot be under-estimated with a 30 per cent plus reduction in the West Yorkshire budget alone by 2016/17 with no end in sight. This equates to £160m.

So it begs the question: Is the current model of 43 police forces in England and Wales, sustainable?

The Scottish referendum has opened up a renewed overdue debate around devolution of powers to English regions.

Yorkshire and Humber has a strong regional identity, but you have to ask the question: If major changes are to be made on the back of a constitutional settlement, does policing need to be part of that debate? I think it does.

It wouldn’t make sense not to include policing and other emergency services in reform at a local and regional level... the timing would make sense.

The merger from eight forces to a single police service in Scotland (Police Scotland) seems to be working and, in addition to that, the Scottish referendum now opens up a debate around devolution of powers to regions.

What happened in Scotland, which has a similar population size to Yorkshire and the Humber, provides us with an impetus and now is the right time to look at whether reform of services could be tied into that devolved democratic debate.

In order to meet the challenges, we need more resources not less and regionalisation could mean reassessing the way the funding formula is applied.

Eighty per cent of the West Yorkshire Police budget is allocated centrally through a flawed funding formula. The remaining 20 per cent comes locally through council tax.

When you ask the public if they are willing to pay extra for policing they generally are, but then Central Government puts a cap on how much you can raise locally which fundamentally mitigates against the concept of PCCs and devolved decision making... it needs to change.

Collaboration is essential and a good thing to do but there is only so far you can go with collaboration.

I also recognise that PCCs are relatively new, and I, along with other Labour PCCs, am working to achieve positive change, but I do feel that legislation needs to be urgently amended to allow for PCCs to be removed.

I am arguing for and will support the best solution for the delivery of policing services.

Policing and its future now needs to be part of a wider conversation and the timing is right. Whichever government is elected next year needs to consider this as part of that wider constitutional and devolution debate. And there is a clear urgency to achieve the necessary changes.

• Mark Burns-Williamson is the Labour police and crime commissioner for West Yorkshire.