I am not Cllr. Lesley Hinds’ greatest fan. Much of her work—up to and including the ill-fated Trams—has come in for some stick in this blog. But she is to be commended for highlighting a key issue in our communities as she takes an axe to the £2.7m that Edinburgh City spends on what is called ‘additional officer funding’. Ordinarily, I would take an opposite stance and keep funding but Cllr Hinds has sussed that the rules have changed since our local polis all got herded into one big Police Scotland.
It is generally agreed by most observers (not on the SNP payroll) that Kenny Macaskill got that one wrong. Whatever was flawed in the eight police forces we had across Scotland, rolling them all together and then trying to run the result as if Scotland were Strathclyde writ large was not the way to fix it. Personally, I concede some rationalisation was needed (e.g. four city regions, plus two large rural areas). But the differences in policing Wester Hailes vs the Western Isles puts any one-size-fits-all solution in the dock accused of smash-and-grab management.
When local government was shaken up in 1996, water, police and fire were removed from direct council control. Water eventually became the Scottish Water quango and the other two run by boards of local councillors—until this year. The result was neither democratic nor accountable but it sort of worked because many councils struck up good working relations with their local divisional commander and especially the inspectors who ran local stations. This resulted in the police taking community policing more seriously, being a community officer was seen as a rewarding post and not some career backwater and the value of an officer being in post for years gave them massive visibility into and from their community.
An outcome of this is generally agreed to be the huge drop in crime statistics over the last decade and an engagement by councils to encourage this virtuous cycle. As a result 2 in 3 councils diverted part of their budget above and beyond the obligatory Police Requisition and negotiated with their local force to support additional officers to be deployed where the council felt they would have the most positive social impact. In East Lothian, this meant a serious six-figure sum went to support eight officers in the two wards with the highest social deprivation measures with the understanding that they would be employed in positive intervention, support for an early years scheme and complement the good work done by community officers and the council’s own squad of seven community wardens.
While everyone recognised that there could be no return to the rich, daily ‘Dixon-of-Dock-Green’ knowledge of each citizen, nonetheless PC Murdoch’s ability to distinguish Oor Wullie and his pals’ japes from real crime was fundamental to keeping information flowing from the community so that the bad lads got shopped as often as not. What nobody wanted was to recreate the 1970’s situation in much of Ulster where the RUC might as well have been an occupying army for all the information it got from certain communities.
But that’s just what seems to be happening.
Sir Stephen House (formerly of Strathclyde Police and now Scotland’s Chief Constable) seems to be applying Strathclyde methods across the country. This includes zero-tolerance crackdowns on Edinburgh saunas when they were formerly left largely in peace by Lothian & Borders finest. The Glasgow practice of stop-and-search, used to crack down on armed gangs, has now appeared in other cities where knife and other serious crimes were much less prevalent. The manpower to do this appears to have come from council-funded additional officers who were recently praised for having brought calls to ASBO hot lines donw from hundreds to tens a month.
Were some long-term strategy in place to do this temporarily with the agreement of local councils, this might not be so serious. As chair of the local Community and Police Partnership, I can vouch there has been no such consultation. Worse than that, my home town of North Berwick was almost wholly without traffic wardens all summer—its busiest season—as they were deployed elsewhere (apparently in preparation for police getting out of the traffic warden business altogether). Again, this was done with no consultation and it is only because 99% of mobs of visitors actually adhered to traffic/parking regulations that we did not have jams and avoidable accidents.
And it is this unilateralism and lack of PR awareness that makes all this so tragic. No-one but bad lads wish the police ill. But, after over a decade of assiduous (re-)building of relations between communities and their police to repair damage from closing stations, indifference to minor crime, disappearing beat bobbies and over-reliance on panda cars, what Stephen House is up to smacks of indifference, if not ignorance.
As well as community officers, CAPP meetings include councillors, community groups, wardens, Tenant & Resident panels so when residents with a gripe they want help solving show up, it is dealt with swiftly because all the right people are working together. Everyone knew it was working because not only was crime falling but complaints about possible crime were falling too.
The £10.7m extra councils were willing to share may not look big compared to the police budget of £1.2bn. But it represents incremental spend right at the coal face direct in officers and not equipment, buildings or support staff. It also represents thousands of hours in time by council staff and ordinary citizens on police business that feeds them a stream of invaluable local data that makes solving crimes much easier.
If Stephen House is unappreciative that, then Cllr Hinds is doing us all a favour by firing her £2m shot across his bows to remind him of the essential job that all our splendid PC Murdochs still out there do for our quality of life. But if he proves unaware and/or thrawn about it (and his career largely in English metropolitan areas suggests he could well be) then we have the wrong man and, despite his early Glesca roots, he should piss off back to England.