Policing in England and Wales is at a strategic impasse. In recent months, senior figures in British policing have raised series concerns about the state of policing in England and Wales, most noticeably the current Director of the National Crime Agency (NCA), Lynne Owens, and the former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Lord Hogan Howe. Though responding to two different issues, namely the urgency of responding to rising street violence, and the growing threat posed by serious and organised crime, both speak to the same problem: operational pressures and capabilities.
The political debate on crime and public safety invariably raises the question of police funding and force strength. This was true in the wake of the riots of 2011, after terror attacks, or in light of a spike in knife crime in major metropolitan areas. This is not a new argument, nor even one that is unique to England and Wales. There is also no clear consensus today on the size of police resources needed to meet current challenges – nor has there been for years. Arguably, the headcount reductions that occurred 2011-15 represented a return to a historical norm following New Labour’s above-trend increases in officer numbers and funding levels after 2000.
Nevertheless, the recent announcement of an extra £100 million in Home Office funding to bolster police numbers and further steps announced during a Downing Street summit on Monday show that we are now back to the familiar political territory of 2007-08, when there was the last spike in youth homicides and signal crimes like the murder of Gary Newlove.
Politicians must respond to growing public alarm about the threat of rising crime and be prepared to accept genuine increases in crime as part of a dynamic threat that needs countering. However, in response to a demand for political action, there are already those willing to draw on easy answers, and to rehash tired arguments about the viability of certain policing tactics.
In reality, when properly examined, current problems will have novel drivers and unfamiliar features that old responses might not be well suited for, even if they could be afforded. To avoid a stale and circular policy debate, politicians need to be open to new solutions, as well as revisiting hard questions that were previously avoided.
Tough problems, tough choices
The big strategic question which invites lots of hard policy choices is one of alignment: to what extent have the crime and public safety demands confronting the police become disconnected from how policing is funded, controlled and governed? This challenge is a stark one. A lack of strategic thinking from the centre, combined with escalating financial pressures and shifting patterns of crime has resulted in inadequate funding models, warped spending priorities, nebulous models of policing productivity and efficiency, and a lack of strategic leadership and coordination.
The consequences of this are the serious concerns being raised about the viability of the current policing model and its future financial health, and a growing appetite among police leaders for radical solutions. In response, the government has not yet shown a willingness to engage in a dialogue about a national strategy for policing that might finally grapple with some of these radical propositions. And it has lead to many in the service to feel disillusioned, and some commentators to suggest that the system we have is currently incapable of self-reforming.
Take the approach to funding. At the moment, total police funding is an amalgam of numerous diverse historical streams and grants, and is a blend of local and national. Over time this formula has become out of step with operational pressures in various places as urban populations have grown rapidly and crime demands have shifted. But levers to generate new revenue streams or shift burdens to local areas have not been sufficient to plug the gaps. The Home Office in 2015 described the current grant formula as having ‘become more and more detached from the real demands on policing’ in evidence submitted to the Public Accounts Committee, but subsequently abandoned plans to revise the model. Furthermore, as the Police Foundation has noted, the police service has consistently struggled to give a compelling account of public value in the Treasury’s terms, and cannot easily distill the value of policing in the language of productivity and efficiency.
But senior police figures have broken ranks to suggest that it is not only the current funding model that demands a serious overhaul, but that the degree of centralisation or devolution of specific strategic and operational responsibilities needs to be re-examined and rebalanced. This goes beyond the old argument about force mergers – driven by outdated views about economies of scale – and is really about capability and skills, and the willingness or otherwise of local forces to pool capability and divest specialist responsibilities.
New approaches to help the police cope with shifting operational demands – especially the effective use of modern technology – provides a new angle on some familiar problems. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick in November claimed that London’s police are currently ‘hamstrung’ by their lack of technical capabilities, and that criminals are ‘racing ahead’ in the technological arms race. But the pace of technological change is only going to quicken, and police forces cannot be left on the back foot. In a recent study, PUBLIC explored the ecosystem of tech start-ups that service policing or provide a product or platform that might have real benefits for public safety. The future of policing depends on being able to leverage innovative new technology from such providers, whatever the funding and operational structures look like.
How can we ensure that police have the technological and human capabilities they need? This is most important at the end of the service that must detect and prevent the offending that poses the highest harm. At present, the National Crime Agency and Serious Fraud Office are underfunded and underpowered when compared to equivalent agencies worldwide, working primarily through partners from other agencies. Regional Organised Crime Units have developed in a piecemeal and inconsistent fashion, and as a result have a variety of operational structures, capabilities and levels of effectiveness, leading to accusations of ‘missed opportunities’ and a lack of a consistent national approach to tackling serious and organised crime.
There are international reform models to compare, and any new strategy for policing in England should be open to lessons from similar jurisdictions that have evolved in a different direction. Clearly relevant is Scotland's police force nationalisation – though this has not been without its problems, and the force is suffering many of the same budgetary pressures as those south of the border. Looking further afield, could New Zealand’s bold shift from a prosecution to a prevention-focused model for policing be replicated by England and Wales?
On Wednesday, at an event hosted by the Project for Modern Democracy and the govtech incubator PUBLIC, we will be exploring some of these questions. Speakers including the Director General of the NCA, Lynne Owens and Lord Hogan Howe, who chairs our advisory group. We expect to hear some important proposals for how policing should move forward, along with some honest appraisal of how the earlier round of police reforms have played out.
We do not expect to reach consensus about how current problems should be addressed – police reform has always been contested space. But we do want to use the discussion to frame a research agenda for policing for 2019 that we hope will be relevant, and politically deliverable. As with all of our work, we will look to the experience of other countries for inspiration, and focus on those policy areas that have the most urgent need for new ideas.