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What the CSR means for the police service – some early reflections
27 Nov 2015

Gavin Hales: CSR re-aligned debate
Gavin Hales: CSR re-aligned debate
The outcome of last week’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) came as a welcome surprise to the police service in England and Wales, with a commitment to protect ‘overall police spending’ in real terms until 2019/20, rather than the anticipated 20 to 40 per cent budget cuts.

Exactly why the Chancellor had such an apparent change of heart is unclear, although it seems highly likely that the terrorist atrocity in Paris weighed heavily, while better-than-expected tax revenues and a number of tax raising measures clearly allowed much greater room for manoeuvre than any commentators seem to have realised. Nevertheless, with reports suggesting that the Home Secretary didn’t agree a settlement with the Treasury until the very last minute, it certainly seems reasonable to wonder what would have happened if she had finalised her negotiations before the events in Paris unfolded.

Although there is still much detail to emerge about the full implications of the CSR, these early reflections attempt to take stock of what the outcome means for policing.

While the CSR provides forces with greater clarity to 2020, there are still cuts to be made and the funding formula has not been finalised

The CSR outcome is clearly welcome news but police forces must continue to operate with a degree of uncertainty about their financial futures following the funding formula ‘omnishambles’ . In December they will receive clarity about the settlement for 2016/17, but a new funding formula will not now be introduced until 2017/18, and recent events demonstrated that how the formula is constituted (ie the variables underpinning it) can have a significant impact on the distribution of funding that results. In the meantime, many forces continue to need to make savings to balance their existing budgets.

The commitment to protect police budgets depends on precepts being raised, which is a political decision for individual police and crime commissioners (PCCs)

Here it is significant that for 2016/17 the decision will have to be made in early 2016, in the run-up to PCC elections in May. PCCs may find it politically difficult to impose rises, particularly following the CSR decision, and to the extent that some choose not to, the overall police funding package will shrink in real terms.

The new £5 cap for raising the precept in 10 forces offers only a modest uplift (if taken up) and will not close the gap sufficiently to make mergers more likely

The CSR included a provision for the ten forces with the lowest precept level to raise their precept by £5 rather than two per cent, with the latter cap remaining in place for the rest. In the case of Northumbria, where the Band D precept for 2015/16 is the lowest in the country at £88.33, that equates to a 5.7 per cent increase. The Treasury has calculated that across the ten forces this change could be worth an extra £12m if implemented in full.

The precept differential between neighbouring forces is often cited as a key obstacle to mergers, and it seems that this small change will not be sufficient to close the gaps, not least as PCCs in the relevant force areas may find imposing the full increase politically uncomfortable, especially with elections looming.

There may be a renewed focus on police financial reserves

In the run-up to the CSR much was made – for example by members of the Home Affairs Select Committee – of the fact that police forces in England and Wales are sitting on reserves of around £1.85bn. Much of these reserves were earmarked to offset expected future funding reductions and, for example, to cover expected redundancy liabilities. While the implications of the CSR for reserves allocations will take some time to emerge, there may be scope for allocating reserves to other initiatives, for example to facilitate greater efficiencies.

Planned efficiency measures should be implemented and the savings reinvested in service delivery

In anticipation of 20 to 40 per cent budget cuts, forces have been identifying considerable savings that will now be less urgent. Nevertheless, where these related to efficiency rather than service reduction measures, they should be implemented and the savings reinvested. Among a wide range of competing pressures, this may help secure the future viability of neighbourhood policing (where evidenced and targeted in the places it is needed most), including police community support officer capacity, of which so much was made in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. There may also be scope for increased investment in problem solving and demand reduction strategies.

The Home Office commitment to driving efficiencies and other reforms is reflected in top-sliced budgets, which will continue to focus the minds of forces

Between 2016/17 and 2019/20 the overall police service budget will include a growing allocation for ‘transformation and capability’, which will be top-sliced from force budgets and then presumably disbursed on the merit of force proposals. The Treasury is predicting £350m procurement saving over the course of the Parliament, which seems realistic assuming that forces continue to push to make efficiency savings with the same urgency as previously planned.

Government investment in emergency service mobile digital technology and counter-terrorism capability will be welcomed

The Government announced a £1bn investment in technology and £500m extra for Home Office counter-terrorism capability, which does appear largely to be new money. However, the full details are still to emerge and concerns have been expressed that some top-slicing of budgets may take place.

The need for workforce flexibility hasn’t gone away, nor has government commitment to facilitate such flexibility…

It is becoming a well-worn trope, but both crime and non-crime demand on the police are rapidly changing, as are the capabilities required to meet them. It seems reasonable to expect an increasingly narrow focus on the office of constable, centred on the use of force and arrest powers, while police staff will be given more powers (reflecting the National Crime Agency model). All else being equal, that may, in the medium- to long-term, result in a rebalancing of the workforce away from warranted officers and towards police staff.

…but the threat of compulsory redundancy has receded for both police staff and especially police officers

The decision taken by the National Police Chiefs’ Council in October not to seek compulsory severance powers over police officers – with all the implications for morale and industrial relations that would have followed – but rather to await the outcome of the CSR, now seems a masterstroke. More broadly, the CSR should allow police forces to give existing police staff greater clarity about the future and to ensure that they have an appropriate balance between front-line, and business and operational support roles.

The CSR completely changes the mood music for the PCC elections in 2016…

Incumbent and prospective PCCs face a much less onerous task than would otherwise have been the case, given the way that 20 to 40 per cent cuts would have required some exceptionally difficult decisions about prioritisation. In advance of the 2016 PCC elections, it will be interesting to see how many incumbent PCCs seek to claim credit for the reversal, and whether any information will emerge (eg from the Treasury) to allow that claim to be tested.

More broadly, the shift towards greater devolution (including in areas such as Greater Manchester and the West Midlands) implies that in some places PCCs will be replaced by elected mayors with much wider powers and responsibilities. Indeed it may be that these changes, rather than any thinking going on in policing, ultimately dictate the future of the 43 force structure.

…and for police leaders…

Likewise, police leaders would have been faced with some exceptionally difficult decisions about operational priorities including workforce numbers and composition. While they do not go away – it is clear for example that morale is a real challenge in some forces – they are certainly less pressing than would otherwise have been the case.

However, there is still a concern that the PCC elections will focus on police numbers rather than police service capability and capacity.

Cuts to the Home Office administration budget could have negative implications for policy making

The Home Office will have to find 30 per cent cuts to its administration budget, saving £100m over the course of the Parliament. It is clear that on-going devolution, starting with PCCs and extending to proposed devolved areas under elected mayors, implies the needs for a smaller ‘centre’, with more policy decided at local level (and with both HMIC and the College of Policing taking on more strategic roles). However, national issues such as counter terrorism require the centre to be credible. We have already seen signs that Home Office policy makers have been finding it difficult to keep abreast of changes on the ground, both for political (concerns on the part of PCCs about interference) and resource (insufficient time) reasons.

The implications of huge cuts to local government budgets (but also other areas of public policy) are unclear

Of all the uncertainties following the CSR, the implications for policing of cuts to other public services are perhaps the most unclear. This includes the future of partnership working (especially the future of community safety partnerships), but also the police role as both generalist emergency service and service of last resort, particularly ‘out of hours’. While the CSR featured additional funding for adult social care and mental health provision, there must be a concern that yet more demand will fall to the police, who will in all likelihood find their arguments about it not being their role falling on increasingly deaf ears.

Final thoughts (for now)

As police forces and PCCs re-gather their composure and tear up reassess predictions of ‘Armageddon’ (Bedfordshire PCC, October 9, 2015), it is clear that the CSR has re-aligned the police debate for the next five years. With the worst fears of austerity extinguished, attention must now shift to developing a more agile service that is better able to adapt to the pace of change, working in increasingly efficient and effective ways, and focusing on capability rather than numbers – including protecting (or indeed restoring) essential functions such as neighbourhood policing. It may be that there are some real opportunities in the gap between the pre-CSR planning assumptions and the post-CSR reality. Our view is that that should include a renewed commitment to clarify the proper role and purpose – and the most effective way of organising – the police service. The worst outcome of the CSR decision would be any sense of complacency.

Gavin Hales is Deputy Director of the Police Foundation


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