Yesterday’s mandatory Business Consultation with the West Midlands Police Authority in Birmingham threw up some interesting questions about where our precept money is going.
As the first to present his slides, Mike Williams, the Authority Treasurer was quick to point out what he referred to as a “spectacular” increase in Police performance over the last year, reporting in his presentation that total crime in the West Midlands has fallen by 10.7%, and business crime by a full 13%. Mr. Williams attributed much of this success to the Police Force receiving the best grant settlement in the country, enabling them to make huge progress with their ‘Neighbourhood Policing’ initiative throughout the conurbation.
More good news was printed in our handouts as we were informed that efficiency targets have been ‘achieved again’ and, what is more, ‘95% of people living in the West Midlands feel safe during the day’. Though presumably not at night…
All, it seems, is looking very rosy indeed for the area. So why, you may well ask, with a very generous grant, rapidly plummeting crime statistics and the police running at maximum efficiency, can we expect our precept to go up by around 4% per year for the next three years?
Well, as Mike Williams said, having one of the lowest precepts in the country at the moment seems like “a very good reason to spend more!”:
• We were informed that the Police will be having their own quarters revamped over the next 4-5years and all the mod-cons do not come cheap, so no doubt this will make a considerable hole in the budget.
• The issue of local taxpayers’ having to subsidize the policing of Olympic delegations in the area was lightly touched upon, as a sort of warning, and then quickly brushed aside. It turns out that central government grants will not be entirely covering the costs of extra security to foreign athletes in 2012 so local ratepayers’ will be having to reach into their pockets to fork out the extra money needed. Let’s hope that having international teams in the West Midlands will bring all the foreseen investment we’ve been reading about…
• Someone asked about the Police pension scheme and how that was factored in. We were told that the scheme was unfunded and therefore a direct charge against the budget.
• There was considerable vagueness surrounding particular efficiency measures that had been taken. When asked to specify there was some mumbling about ‘trying to improve things like purchasing’ and a reduction in crime resulting in a reduction of crime support. That Brendon Connor, an Independent Member of the Police Authority (who just happens to be a quangoist on the board of Advantage West Midlands), was only able to recall two fairly ambiguous cost cutting measures suggests that they haven’t been a priority on the agenda.
• Our last treat of the morning was indicative of where a proportion of this extra money is going and came in the shape of a presentation by Oliver Goode of Links Consulting who delivered an ‘Update on how the Authority is developing links with the community and the development of the consultation strategy’. I heard a gentleman from the FSB behind me exclaim, “How much is this costing? We’ve already had all this!”, and indeed many others chimed in once the presentation was over claiming that its entire content was duplicated. In other words, the Authority has been giving these consultants money for old rope…
Nor was this the end of the discontent. Many claimed that the emphasis on Neighbourhood Policing with regards to local businesses, was either lost on them having never come across this supposedly hands-on approach, or useless to them as their businesses quite simply didn’t function at a neighbourhood level. One lady made reference to the many online businesses who had no chance of benefiting from all the Police resources poured into this indistinct scheme.
One gentleman, again representing the FSB, challenged the crime figures themselves. The tumbling business crime statistics of the last five years or so, he claimed, coincide with changes in the policy and premiums of insurance companies. He argued that business crime had not fallen due to the valiant efforts of the WMP, but instead business owners were increasingly leaving crimes unreported. This seemed familiar to most of the business people in the room who had various tales to tell about crime that they had decided to write-off rather than jeopardize their insurance policies.
So what originally seemed like value for money soon seemed like a blackhole, with the Police unable to take the credit for any victory over business crime and their new initiatives appearing alien to many of the people they’ve been designed to engage with.
We were told that our opinions would be recorded and taken onboard if we would be kind enough to forward our comments on to the West Midlands Police Authority, although you’d think at their own consultation the onus would be on them to take notes. Let’s hope that their promise was sincere and with expensive initiatives looming, they sense to need to tighten their belts and ditch the consultants.