Variable geography: the implications of devolution for policing in England

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Variable geography: the implications of devolution for policing in England

England’s governance is changing radically as a result of the devolution deals being reached between the government and the big cities. This push to hand new powers to England’s towns and cities is being driven, first, by the need to reduce regional economic inequalities and, second, by a view from the Treasury that reduced funding will go further if local areas can join up services and respond flexibly to local circumstances. For the police devolution represents a new political reality, but it is one to which they have so far paid very little attention.[1] This article explores the implications of English devolution for the police service.

So far the Treasury has reachedeight substantive devolution deals, mainly with the large urban conurbations. This process has given birth to a new innovation in English governance: the city and county region. In exchange for new budgets and powers councils have been encouraged to join together into combined city regional and county regional authorities, largely based around the boundaries of existing Local Enterprise Partnerships. Under the banner of the northern powerhouse’ a number of city regions have been given devolved budgets in areas important for economic regeneration such as employment support, skills and transport. In Greater Manchester the devolution deal has also expanded into areas of public service expenditure, most notably with a new elected mayor taking on the role of the Police and Crime Commissioner and getting control of the £6 billion local NHS budget.

Outside the metropolitan areas the extent of devolution is less advanced, as a recent IPPR paper makes clear. Nonetheless, Cornwall’s unitary authority has agreed a substantive devolution deal that gives the county control over transport, employment, skills, EU funding, business support, energy, health, social care, heritage and culture.

What are the implications of this new political reality for the police service? First, the debate about structural reform in policing needs to take into account this new landscape of local governance. Structure the arrangement of policing organisations and the relationships between them is clearly an important element in determining the effectiveness of the police. However the debate about the structure of the service has been almost entirely inward-looking, focused on the need to make back office savings and strengthen specialist capabilities that require economies of scale.

Indeed separate logics are in many parts of the country pulling the structure of policing and that of city and county regional government in different directions. Devolution deals are being put together largely on economic grounds, with areas joining together around centres of economic gravity and surrounding travel-to-work areas. Police force collaboration by contrast is being driven by internal policing factors such as the existing relationships between forces and their shared operational needs. So, for example, Bedfordshire Police are in a Strategic Alliance with Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire, but the county is presently divided into different regional alliances for economic growth purposes.

Indeed, according to Police Foundation research, as many as half of England’s police forces are not co-terminous with the new city and county regions. The two maps below show respectively the police force boundaries in England and Wales and the boundaries of the new city and county regions. The table that follows shows which police forces align with which city and county regions, and which are co-terminous.

HMIC Police Force map

Copyright: HMICView full size image

Police force area devolution map

Copyright: Local Government ChronicleView full size image

Boundaries and co-terminosity

The lack of co-terminous boundaries may not matter too much currently because the English counties, with the exception of Cornwall, have so far been left out of the devolution deals. If that were to change, however, and more substantial powers in particular over public services were to be devolved to county regions the current arrangements would rightly be called into question.

The second implication of these devolution deals is that they are producing a mixed economy of police governance. Whereas it had been assumed that the Police and Crime Commissioner model was here to stay, it is in fact being transformed by the devolution process. In some of the big metropolitan areas (Greater Manchester, West Midlands and Leeds for example) the new elected mayor looks set to take over the powers of the PCC, as happened first in London. Over the next few years we are likely to see the PCC role being subsumed under that of mayors in the big cities, while county areas continue with separate Police and Crime and Commissioners.

The implications of this mixed economy for police accountability have not yet been fully debated but they should be. For example, one of the arguments originally made for PCCs was that having an elected police commissioner would engage the public much more in debates about police priorities. It was also argued that accountability for police performance would be strengthened. However, under a mayoral model elections will be less police focused, with police issues being subsumed under wider considerations and lines of accountability arguably being diluted. This disadvantage in terms of accountability has to be traded against other advantages of the mayoral model, addressed below.

Third, devolution has significant implications for service delivery. Powerful city mayors are in a much better position to bring services such as policing, health, employment support and housing together in a way that supports much more preventative and joined up solutions. PCCs will by contrast lack hard powers across the wider landscape and will have to rely on soft power’ to broker new programmes and interventions.

The possibilities for variation in service models are made even greater by the prospect of a separate push for devolution from the Ministry of Justice. Many, including this author, have long argued that more of the criminal justice system, such as responsibility for prisons and probation, should be devolved down to the local level where more can be done to integrate offender management with other services important for the rehabilitation of offenders, such as housing, health and employment services. It is conceivable that we could see some PCCs and mayors taking over more of the justice system, although the degree to which this will be practical or appealing will vary from place to place. The creation of large contract package areas’ for probation, on their own distinctive regional boundaries, complicates matters considerably.

A fourth consequence of devolution is that it underpins the decentralization of policing policy that has taken place under this government. Whether under a PCC or an elected mayor local police priorities will be set by a locally elected figure who will control the purse strings and appoint the Chief Constable. Localism is very much here to stay, although it will take different forms in different parts of the country.

The way in which public services are structured and held to account is changing significantly as a result of English devolution. The police service needs to understand this new political reality, which has major implications for the structure of the service, the way it is held to account and the way it will interact with other public services in the future.

[1] Note that the city devolution deals are an English phenomenon and devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are distinct processes of negotiation between the respective devolved administrations and Westminster. This article focuses on English devolution.