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Special Feature: The Turbulent Birth Of PCCs

Cliff Caswell considers the early priorities for police and crime commissioners after a pitiful turnout at the polls

It has been a contentious policy from the moment it was announced by the Home Secretary two-and-a-half years ago. It had a tempestuous ride through both Houses of Parliament and culminated in the lowest turnout of any election in British history.

By all accounts, the notion of police and crime commissioners has been beset with controversy. As well as being lambasted by staff associations, the idea has found opposition from MPs of every party colour and sparked serious concerns about a clash of law enforcement and political agendas.

For better or for worse, however, the new system of police governance is a reality. Despite the election turnout being as low as 15 per cent in some areas on November 15 and reports of deserted polling stations, the 41 new individuals are now taking up the first of their four years in office at force areas across England and Wales.

Police authorities made up of elected councillors and independent members are now consigned to the annals of history. A mixture of survivors from the old regime, ex-policing, military and criminal justice professionals and party-political politicians will now be responsible for the brave new world that the Conservative arm of the coalition government claims will give policing a higher place on the public’s agenda and improve accountability.

But behind the post-election argument and political manoeuvring in Westminster, law enforcement analysts have highlighted the fledgling PCCs will face significant challenges at the early stages of their role – and must act decisively to ensure that the change to the new system is as smooth as possible.

“Those who are now in these new positions have a system they must quickly engage with,” said Dr Tim Brain, a former Gloucestershire chief constable turned academic. “Obviously they are going to need to know their organisations inside out and, while several of those elected are former police authority members, others will not be familiar with the network and their infrastructure.

“From my reckoning there are about 12 PCCs who will have to appoint a new chief constable – this is a big responsibility that they have to face up to rapidly, but it is also an opportunity for them to personally select who they will work with.

“All of the PCCs are also going to have to deal with the council tax issue come next year – a lot of them have said that they are going to fight cuts and a few have pledged that there will not be any privatisation in their forces. But they must now decide on the cold realities of whether to cut the tax, put it up or keep it the same.”

Before any of this can happen, however, there are a series of more basic and pressing matters for the new PCCs to consider with appointing their own team, and ensuring they are in a strong position moving forward, at the top of the list.

They will also need to get to grips with the public mood in large territories covering – in many cases – several parliamentary constituencies and engage with electors about their concerns, which will be crucial in formulating the policing plan for which the PCCs are responsible.

Edward Boyd, Researcher at the right-of-centre think-tank Policy Exchange, said that those new in post would need to make their presence felt at an early stage.

“It is important for them to realise that their job is not to run the force – it is to listen to the public and, from there, to set the policing plan and to do this they have to get out and meet people,” he said. “If I was advising them, I would say they must first work out exactly what they need and create their own team.”

“I would then suggest that they fully get to grips with their forces, looking at where the money is going and working out what the priorities are. Obviously the way PCCs deal with these early issues will vary from area-to-area.”

Mr Boyd went on to point out that the high number of independent candidates who had been elected would bring a unique – and different – perspective to the role.

While acknowledging that turnout during the elections on November 15 had been low, he said that electors’ behaviour suggested they had looked closely at the candidates’ credentials for the job above their party-political allegiances. A dozen of the chosen candidates were independent of a party.

“In cases where you have voting on a single issue, it seems people will look at the CV of the candidate and this for me was a really interesting point,” said Mr Boyd. “People have looked carefully at whether they are suitable for the job, and many have made their decisions based on these considerations.”

While many candidates have been successful without the backing of party machinery, however, they are poised to engage with councillors of all political shades in the shape of the police and crime panel – the body that holds them to account.

“There are some important differences between the old police authority system and that which underpins police and crime commissioners,” said Mr Boyd. “There is a change of relationship – the panel is not responsible for making decisions although it is important for them to work closely with the PCCs.”

The landscape is certainly going to be different. The era of the PCC brings with it a new localism and relationships between the parties involved in police governance will be changed with a new and more public facing character.

Opinions are divided over the future prospects. While some have maintained this could be an expensive experiment destined for failure and ripe to be ditched by a future Labour administration, others have suggested that it might herald greater engagement in future and there will be more interest in the 2016 elections.

Whether this is the case remains to be seen – the Conservative’s flagship law enforcement policy has had the most unpromising of starts with deserted polling stations and a public – it seems – largely apathetic, unimpressed or confused.

Police and crime commissioners will ultimately have an ambitious remit to promote partnerships and provide grants to organisations across the criminal justice sector. Whatever their ultimate fate the governance of policing has entered new and uncharted waters, which are as daunting for some as they are exciting for others.

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