A single police or fire service was a snappy election promise that could cost communities dear, warns Barbara Grant
Police and fire emerged as one of the critical issues of the election campaign. In setting out their plans for the organisation of emergency services, both of Scotland’s biggest parties gave a clear indication of their preference for a far greater degree of national convergence.
As the argument for a single fire and rescue service, and potentially a nationwide police force, gained political momentum, the voice for maintaining local control was all but drowned out. But opponents of structural reform warn that if the new SNP Government presses ahead with plans to redraw boundaries, the real price will be paid by communities who end up with services far inferior to those they currently enjoy.
Barbara Grant, spokesperson for community safety for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, is passionately opposed to change for the sake of change. “I’m very angry that people just play ducks and drakes with services that are so important to the community,” she says.
“At the back of it all is a centralising agenda – ‘we’ll centralise the police and fire, and then we’ll move onto social services then we’ll move onto the next thing’. I don’t think that’s what the population out there wants. There was all this great talk about localism; well, we really are getting the opposite to that.”
The big driver towards national service provision is, of course, economies of scale. A comprehensive report on Scottish policing earlier this year by Strathclyde deputy chief constable Neil Richardson found that a reformed service could save up to £153m a year. But the expected cost of redrawing police boundaries, put at £92m, is likely to be a “gross underestimate”, says Grant, and whatever savings are eventually made it won’t address the urgent need for efficiencies in the system. “Any overall savings based on structural change will be very much longer term, when savings are needed now,” she says.
But the biggest risk of changing boundaries without a sound business case for doing so is that excellence within the existing services could be lost. “We are starting at a point where we have eight police authorities and eight fire authorities who, as far as I’m aware, work very, very well,” she says. “If you were in a position where your police and fire services were basket cases then I could see this almighty rush to do something, but that’s not the case. If you’re starting from that point where you’ve got police and fire that are doing a very good job at the moment, you have to be sure if you’re changing something, you’re changing it for the better.”
At the moment, no evidence has been forthcoming that suggests the case for reform is well-founded. “Nothing has been thought through,” she says. “There’s no political accountability been put forward, there’s no governance arrangements, there’s no business case – at this point in time, there’s no evidence to suggest anything.”
During the election hustings, Grant had the opportunity to quiz Iain Gray, then Labour leader in the Scottish Parliament, about the rationale for a single police force, and was unimpressed by his response. “He waffled,” she says. “That gives you an indication, when you’re trying to get some information, it ain’t there.” The widespread assumption that redrawing boundaries will save money as public resources are deployed more efficiently has been proved to be fundamentally flawed, she argues. “There hasn’t been a reorganisation in Britain in the last twenty years that’s saved a penny piece – in fact it’s always cost more money,” she says.
A single police force, or fire and rescue service, amounts to “a good headline” in the run-up to the elections and not much more, says Grant. Suspicions of electioneering were reinforced by the decision of the main parties to declare their positions on the organisation of police and fire before the consultation on the issue had concluded. “I don’t find that acceptable,” she says. “Why would you have a consultation paper if you’ve already decided what you’re going to do? It seems to me a very undemocratic way of going about your business.”
Grant insists she is not out to support the status quo at all costs. “I’m not saying no, no, no, I’m saying show me how is it going to work, how is it going to be better,” she says. “I’m sure there are umpteen ways of saving money now, but it’s got to be looked at properly.” She gives the example of the mobile data technology which has been trialled within Strathclyde Police for the past two years. By entering data on handheld devices, officers on the ground are able to reduce the time they spend filling in paperwork back at base. “If you save half an hour a day on every cop in the country, you’re talking mega money,” she says.
Ideas put forward to protect local accountability within a single national structure are, she believes, naïve. Given that police authorities, made up of elected councillors, already exist, it is hard to see the merit of directly elected regional police commissioners whose job it would be to hold the national police force to account. “We’ve already got boards who are elected people,” she says. “I sit on the Strathclyde Police Authority [and] I don’t have any problems speaking to the chief constable and saying to him exactly what I think or what people out there are saying to me. There’s no problem with councillors being involved at any time.”
If police and fire services do stop short of integration, a compromise option would be to have a greater number of functions provided on a national basis. Shared services have been an increasingly dominant feature in the public sector landscape, with councils joining forces with other authorities to provide back, and increasingly, front-office services more efficiently. But Grant warns that providing key services on a national basis could carry serious risks, pointing out that the performance to date of the Scottish Police Services Authority, which provides training, forensic and ICT services to Scotland’s police forces, has been less than convincing. “They’ve been on the go for four or five years and they still haven’t got a grip of the thing,” she says. “If you can’t get the basics right there, how the hell are you going to get the bigger things?” Key functions cannot be handed over to a central body without careful consideration of the options and, crucially, what they will mean for local services. “You can’t just jump like you’re going off a cliff and hope at the end of it you’re going to land in some water,” she says.
Grant, a Conservative member of East Renfrewshire Council who has held the community safety remit for COSLA for two and a half years, has a long pedigree in the politics of policing: she has sat on the Strathclyde Police Authority since its inception in the mid-nineties, an experience which has yielded useful insights since taking on her national brief. “Strathclyde Police do look after 40 per cent of the population of Scotland, so it gives you a good grounding,” she says. All the more so since the diversity of Scotland’s communities is reflected in the population served by its largest police force. “Policing in Scotland is not an easy business because it’s so, so diverse,” she says. “There are people living in inner cities, in suburbs, on islands a long way away from the heart of things. That’s Scotland as a whole, but it’s also, in a way, the Strathclyde Police Authority.”
The priority given by the new government to police and fire reform remains to be seen. But it’s clear that publication next month of the Christie Commission’s findings on the future of public services will generate a new debate about how services are delivered at a time of significantly tightened budgets. Organisation of police and fire services will have to be considered in the context of what could be a radically reformed public sector landscape.