Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Police Mergers Threaten Local Policing

Yesterday, The Times reported that the government is looking to force through the merger of a number of police forces. After years of being short-changed by government – a 39% real term decrease in funding for Surrey police since 1997 – a forced merger of Surrey with other forces would be the thin end of the wedge for Elmbridge. The reality is that any Surrey merger would involve joining forces with higher levels of crime – a further drain on the manpower tackling Surrey crime.

As it currently stands, Surrey is midway through a consultation on radical changes to the police force, including cutting bureaucracy, reducing the number of senior management and consolidating the number of police stations – in order to put 200 extra officers on the streets. The risk for Elmbridge is that it may lose one or more of its stations – most importantly the emergency response station at Esher. Whether it is county-wide or regional reviews, Elmbridge is a soft target for cuts - or efficiencies, depending on your point of view - because it has relatively low crime. Yet, in Elmbridge, police-recorded criminal damage, domestic burglary, robbery, violence against the person and woundings are all up since 2001. In recent weeks, a number of people have expressed direct concerns with me about issues of drugs and violent intimidation in certain parts of the borough – backing up, anecdotally, some of these local statistics.

At 22%, detection rates in Surrey are below the regional and national average. That may well reflect the Surrey force’s refusal to tick boxes and chase Whitehall targets – and Chief Constable Mark Rowley’s admirable commitment to ‘common sense’ policing. But, it also strengthens my impression that Surrey is continually being short-changed of the resources necessary to prevent crime from rising.

I welcome Surrey Police Authority’s response to the interim plan for changes to the force – and in particular the commitment that ‘no police station will be closed unless better alternatives to serve the public can be provided’ (my emphasis). The critical test in Elmbridge will be whether the proposed changes provide a net improvement in local policing.

I have recently met with local officers, residents, councillors and the Chief Constable to stress the importance of local, visible and responsive policing in Elmbridge. The Surrey force is doing its best to provide just that – despite long-term neglect from this government. Any forced merger would make that task even more difficult.


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