Any connection between the dust-dry discipline of budgeting for our public services and the touchy-feely subject of symbolism may seem remote, but decisions about capital budget allocations for our justice sector over the last few years prove otherwise.
Let’s be clear about what we mean, the budgets of all public services are divided into revenue and capital allocations – revenue for paying the wages, capital for buildings, cars, computers etc. And never the twain shall meet, transferring funds from one to another, viring, is strictly regulated to ensure money earmarked for long-term projects isn’t pilfered for running expenses. It is a tried and tested system and it makes sense as long as both allocations are adequate.
And that’s the problem. In recent years, all our public services have endured considerable reductions in their revenue budgets but their capital allocations have been cut to the bone with year on year of chronic underfunding.
It’s an old trick, if you want to make cuts but not draw too much attention or political heat, keep up the frontline funding to great fanfare and cut the longer term infrastructure cash.
It won’t cause a problem immediately and if you only do it for a few years you can often get away with it. But, if you carry on too long, the result is serious long-term damage to service delivery.
And that’s the fix that our justice system now finds itself in. Capital underfunding has gone on too long and the chickens are coming home to roost. The result – dozens of police stations and a good number of district and sheriff courts closed, not to mention creaking IT systems and, as has been much reported, police cars that are well past their serviceable age.
In the case of the police stations, the business case for closure is compelling. Footfall has declined steeply over the years, most folk now contact the police by phone or online. Likewise local sheriff courts are expensive to run and, with no money for maintainance, larger regional hubs make sense.
But there is more to it than that and it’s here that the symbolism comes in.
Many fair-sized towns in Scotland now have no bank, post office or police station, while in larger county towns the courts, which usually occupied such symbolically central positions, have all but disappeared.
This means more than a 20-mile journey, it represents a far greater distancing of the citizen from their justice system – carried out in their name and supposedly for their benefit.
There is a lot more to closed police stations and courts than budgetary savings. There may be a bigger social price to pay.
Then there is the important matter of capacity. Recently we have seen a new trend of mass demonstrations with the stated intention of overwhelming the system and therefore the state.
There is little chance of a mob of any size overwhelming a well-trained police service, but with vastly reduced cell and court capacity, the aim to overwhelm the system is not so ill founded.
Old police cars breaking down may seem like a minor – even comical – issue, but it is the tip of a very large iceberg and if the insidious cuts to capital allocations are not reversed quickly, the damage to the fabric of our justice system will be irreparable.
Tom Wood is a writer and former Deputy Chief Constable