We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament. Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.
So, what was announced? The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats. First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces. In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.
Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners. One interpretation of the announcement is that for the 10 forces with the lowest precept they will be able to go beyond the 2% precept cap with a £5 top up per household, although we need further detail to be certain. This could could enable some forces like Northumbria and West Midlands to raise new money if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.
With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted. There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales. This is good news.
However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms. The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.
It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to protect officer numbers’. We still need to rebalance the police workforce. We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime. We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively. Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.
The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.
The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service. Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.
Before today I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world.
Rick Muir is Director of the Police Foundation.