Police authorities face difficult choices over £70m grant offer

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Police authorities are poised to turn down grants worth millions of pounds which would enable them to freeze council tax bills.

The Government has set aside more than £70m to compensate police forces whose governing bodies agree not to put up bills from April.

But the offer is there for one year only, and authorities have warned that accepting the money in 2012-13 could result in them having to make deeper cuts in future.

Another option would be to raise the policing element of council tax bills by more than five per cent in 2013-14 – an increase so great it could trigger a referendum.

Setting the budget for 2013-14 will be one of the first major tasks for directly-elected police commissioners, who are due to take office from November next year.

The grants are calculated to provide authorities with the cash they would have received if they had raised their council tax precepts by three per cent.

In West Yorkshire’s case, that would be £2.7m. North Yorkshire would receive more than £1.8m, while South Yorkshire and Humberside would each receive about £1.5m.

South Yorkshire Police Authority chief executive Bill Wilkinson said: “A number of police authorities around the country have been saying ‘No, we are going to bite the bullet and not accept the grant because we can’t afford to take anything more out of policing’.

“Unfortunately that is what it means if the Government takes the grant away.”

Mr Wilkinson added that Yorkshire’s police authorities had yet to decide how to respond to the Government’s offer.

“It is tempting to say let’s not take the money because it means we won’t have to make bigger cuts later,” he said. “But on the other hand you then have to ask people in South Yorkshire, who might be looking for work, to pay something that they don’t have to pay.

“It is a very difficult political judgment for the members to make.”

West Yorkshire Police Authority is seeking residents’ opinions on the issue and asking them to fill in a budget survey available on its website.

The survey asks correspondents to indicate whether the authority should take the grant or turn it down, warning that acceptance could lead to a rise in the police precept of at least 5.3 per cent in 2013-14.

“If we accept the freeze... there is a risk that the Government may not let us have a 5.3 per cent increase,” the questionnaire states.

“This means that we would have no choice but to agree a lower police council tax increase in 2013-14, and even more savings in police spending would be needed in future years.”

West Yorkshire Police Authority chairman Mark Burns-Williamson said: “When we are looking at a funding gap over four years of about £100m and having in the region of 1,500 to 2,000 fewer people as an organisation, every bit of funding we can build into our budget is obviously very welcome.”

The dilemma was being pondered as the Home Office confirmed yesterday it would press ahead with its plans to reduce funding for police by five per cent in cash terms next year.

The cut will feel even deeper after inflation is taken into account.

Policing Minister Nick Herbert indicated the region’s largest force, West Yorkshire, would receive £337m in revenue grants if its authority decided to accept the incentive to freeze council tax.

South Yorkshire would be given £200m, Humberside £127.5m and North Yorkshire £78.6m.

Shadow Policing Minister David Hanson said the funding settlement was “simply not good enough”.