The future they envisage is both traditional and innovative; local officers will continue to respond when they are needed, they will investigate local crime and, contrary to some recent cost saving revisions, they will do so without jeopardising the bedrock’ of neighbourhood policing. At the same time, in the growth areas of safeguarding and offender management, the police will work with multi-agency colleagues in deeply integrated local teams to one set of priorities, one definition of harm, one budget and one performance regime’. With regard to specialist policing and operational support the future sees current inter-force collaboration expanded into a mixed economy of regional and national structures, built pragmatically out of current arrangements, with business support functions procured on the basis of best available economies of scale’.
As a vision of the future it is an intriguing blend of tradition and ambition, pragmatism and idealism; if it is to become a blueprint for reform however, it must quickly acquire the ring of credibility, in two respects in particular.
First, for all the service-improvement ambition; the project is a response to austerity and it needs to be demonstrated that it meets the brief. There are savings implicit in the model; neighbourhood policing can reduce service demand; integrating harm prevention functions could produce efficiencies as well as better outcomes; specialist functions, covering larger geographies, would strip-out structural duplication; and outsourced support functions can be cost efficient. Yet there is no indication, however rudimentary, as to whether this will be enough, or whether it even comes close, to meeting the financial challenge facing policing in the coming years.
Second, there is the tricky issue of what happens in the middle. Neighbourhood policing and local safeguarding work to a fine geographical grid, cross-force’ specialisms would cover large territories; as the basic building blocks of policing either contract or expand in size, what role remains for the police forces that sit in between?
The authors suggest that the key function is connectivity’; ensuring information and intelligence flows upwards from neighbourhoods to specialist functions and that services from these get to the ground where and when needed. Joining up the local, regional and national dots will clearly be important, however this model could prove politically problematic because it begs the question of whether tomorrow’s force headquarters reinvented perhaps as rather technical, back-office ‘OCU support hubs’ remain the right attachment points for democratic governance.
As they must to gain the ear of the government, the Advisory Group take as given the continued existence of Police and Crime Commissioners and begin to outline some options for retro-fitting’ cross-force and national specialist functions onto the force-level governance framework. Just as challenging (and not addressed at all) are questions of accountability at the more local level. In the reimagined future would force-level PCCs or mayors be the best option for democratic oversight of revitalised ward or town level policing teams, or officers embedded in local multi-agency safeguarding teams, particularly when there are existing local democratic structures that could readily be adapted to this function?
To be seen as credible, the more detailed governance proposals that follow this initial sketch will need to look like they could have been designed on a blank sheet of paper, rather than patched on to immovable legacy arrangements. If this cannot be achieved, and if a convincing case can be made for the financial viability of this new policing vision, it may be incumbent on government to reconsider its position on governance, in order that an effective and affordable police service can be built on these foundations.