Alison Payne: Policing run locally would fit the bill

As THE Scottish Government tries to identify savings amid a bleak economic outlook, why not have a civil servant in Edinburgh decide when the bins are emptied in Aviemore?

What about scrapping local authorities altogether and deliver all public services from St Andrew's House? We could get rid of all our elected councillors who make decisions based on the needs and priorities of their local areas. All education, housing, planning and social work decisions could be made at the centre in the capital.

With the exception of some long-suffering residents of Edinburgh scunnered by the ongoing trams chaos, most people would dismiss such proposals out of hand.

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Our local authorities, though we may disagree with their actions from time to time, are an essential part of our democracy and help focus service delivery on local needs and priorities, and the more autonomy local authorities have, the better they can respond to those local issues. The resulting diversity of provision also helps drive innovation and improve services across the board.

Yet, despite how ludicrous such policies may appear, the same logic is being used to push for the rationalisation of Scotland's eight police forces into one centralised service.

Reform Scotland is firmly opposed to this idea. We argue that while reform of Scotland's police structure is needed, the solution is to create a more, not less, locally accountable service. It is also debatable whether any real savings would be made in the long term by merging all eight forces into one unit.

Although crime in Scotland has been falling in recent years, there are still significant crime problems across the country. There is also a problem with the relationship between the public and the police; the latest Scottish Crime and Justice Survey suggested that only 40 per cent of crime is actually reported to the police - a fall from 58 per cent in 1999/2000. The same survey also suggested that a significant minority (31 per cent) felt that local police were not dealing with the things that mattered to the community.

The current number of police forces in Scotland largely reflects the old regional tier of local government which was abolished in 1996. As a result, their boundaries are somewhat arbitrary and have led to a structure with little, if any, direct accountability to the man or woman in the street. Operational matters, including police deployment are, rightly, the responsibility of Chief Constables.Chief Constables are, in theory, accountable to police boards, which can remove the senior officer if they feel he or she is not doing a good job. However, police boards, made up of councillors from the various council areas covered by the police force, are generally neither accountable to the electorate, nor particularly transparent. Thus, a key requirement of reform is to both deal with crime effectively and build up trust with local communities.

It is also important to recognise that different crime problems are experienced by different communities. For example, while Fife Constabulary had the second lowest rate for non-sexual crimes of violence in 2009/10, it had the highest rate for crimes of indecency. Grampian Police, on the other hand, had the third highest rate for crimes of dishonesty, but the lowest rate for fire-raising and vandalism. The different nature of crimes in these different areas illustrates that different methods need to be adopted to combat the different problems and it is, therefore, imperative that areas have the power to allocate budgets and resources as they see fit to address local problems.

To address these issues, Reform Scotland believes that police forces should match up to local authority areas. It could be argued that 32 forces are too many (the underlying question that would need to be addressed first is whether Scotland needs 32 councils).

The key point here is that each local authority area (regardless of how many there are) should have its own police force, providing local accountability. It is also worth noting that many other countries have far more police forces, and a more local level of police service. For example, Belgium has 196 local police forces, while Spain has 1,800 municipal forces. For those concerned about increased politicisation of the police, our proposed structure is no different to that of a single force - rather than one chief constable being accountable to the Cabinet secretary for justice, we would have 32 chief constables accountable to councillors.

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As well as addressing the current accountability gap and ensuring that the service was more local, this model provides the opportunity for more effective policing at a local level.It is also more transparent for councils to be in a position to choose to spend more - or less - on policing as their area requires, as well as setting new bylaws for their police forces to enforce.

Such a policy could easily be piloted in Dumfries & Galloway or Fife where boundaries currently match up, and the existing divisions, as outlined in the table, would make such reorganisation relatively straightforward elsewhere in Scotland.

Further, this structure would lead to a clearer sense of who was in charge of policing; while the local chief constable would have operational responsibility, a local politician would have political responsibility, just as is the case for education, housing and a number of other local services.

In addition to the local forces, a beefed up Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency would offer support, training, specialist services and resources to local forces if required.

Such a structure also offers the potential for efficiency savings. There is no particular reason to believe that a single police force would deliver cost savings from economies of scale. While it may be possible to save some chief constable salaries, it is just as likely that additional and more complex management structures would be required. Administration efficiencies may be possible, but these could also be achieved by sharing services, and do not require the creation of a single force.

More local and accountable police forces that match local authority boundaries are more likely to lead to cost savings. The police forces would be accountable for their spending as well as their effectiveness, putting downward pressure on costs; smaller organisations would require fewer layers of management and there would be opportunities to deliver efficiency savings by sharing administrative and support services. These could involve groups of police forces and/or other public sector organisations with which the forces would share boundaries.

Matching police forces to local authority areas would improve accountability and help re-establish greater pride and confidence in both local and national policing in Scotland. Reform Scotland believes these policies have the potential to create a more effective, as well as a more efficient, police service in Scotland.

• Alison Payne is research director of the Reform Scotland think tank.