Adapting to austerity: how police forces are coping with the Spending Review

19 July 2012

Two years into the most challenging Spending Review in its history, and the police service has ostensibly grasped the nettle of austerity. As Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary reported earlier this month, half of all cuts have already been secured, the “front line” has been protected (if not numerically preserved), crime is falling and victim satisfaction is up. Yet while forces have adapted well in the short-term, the longer-term landscape remains uncertain. Other services are retreating within their own tighter budgets, demand on police forces is increasing and public confidence, so reliant on visibility and community relations, is at risk as forces significantly reduce their headcount. To further explore these themes, Reform convened a roundtable lunch led by the outgoing Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Denis O’Connor. The event was held under Chatham House Rule, so comments are not attributable, but the session raised some key points:

Incremental efficiency can only go so far; a more radical approach is needed. Innovation up until now – whether in terms of collaboration between forces, outsourcing or personnel reductions – has been implemented within the existing model of policing. This is not only financially unsustainable but in the context of smaller budgets it risks defaulting to a wholly reactive model of policing that responds to, but does not reduce, crime. If police are to have a meaningful impact on crime levels, resources must be directed further upstream on preventative strategies that actually reduce demand in the first place. In this respect, the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners in November, with a remit that extends beyond just policing, may spur innovation towards earlier intervention and more joined-up criminal justice.

It is the shape and agility of police forces that matter, not the size of their budgets or staff rosters. Black and white discussion of police numbers has obstructed a much-needed debate on where and how officers and staff are deployed, and the ability of Chief Constables to alter both. If innovative new models are to be embraced, forces must be empowered to own and drive the change themselves. In practice, this means far greater flexibility for Chiefs over the workforce, which accounts for over 80 per cent of budgets, and far less control – through bureaucracy, political pressure or budgetary silos – from the Home Office.

The private sector has a lot to give, but partnership must be better designed and defined. Financial necessity and political will have both given new impetus to private sector involvement in policing but efforts are still dogged by long procurement times, poor commissioning, and questions over resilience in the event of a emergency (such as last year’s August riots) or a contract failure (such as the Olympics). Police leaders must therefore improve their ability to intelligently commission services on the basis of “what works” and with a clear idea of what can and cannot be provided by others. In addition, private sector providers must clearly demonstrate the benefits of their services, especially to a public that remains sceptical despite two decades of private sector involvement in policing.

Forces have so far adapted to austerity with vigour, but in decidedly incremental terms. If policing is to remain effective in the face of not just this Spending Review but future settlements as well, on top of the unrelenting pressures of demand, then a far more radical approach is necessary. It should be based on flexibility, prevention and intelligent partnership.

Reform roundtable seminar on “Adapting to austerity: How police forces are coping with the Spending Review”, introduced by Sir Denis O’Connor, HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary, on Wednesday 18 July 2012.

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