Yesterday started with an earlier than usual trip to City Hall for a briefing on the new London Police and Crime Plan, also known in some quarters as ‘Boris’s list of planned police station closures’ and ‘Boris’s secret plan to hive policing off to postmen’.
After the briefing I sat in on the Assembly’s budget scrutiny meeting in which Boris’s policing deputy Stephen Greenhalgh and Met Deputy Commissioner Craig Mackey rehearsed some of the briefing for the benefit of Assembly Members.
The AMs were a bit annoyed at hearing the plan’s finer details after the media and kept referring to a ‘leaked’ copy which had been helpfully provided to them by a BBC journalist.
Not for the first time, MOPAC seemed a tad surprised at the passion with which AMs guard their scrutiny responsibilities. Boris wised up to this years ago, risking the wrath of MPs by telling them his primary inquisitor was the Assembly and not Parliament.
While the worst MPs can do is write a ridiculously partisan report about TfL’s failures to keep buses running in deep snow, AMs can, as I’m sure I heard one warn a MOPAC official, “humiliate” those who displeasure them.
But even if the MOPAC isn’t inclined to merely play to Assembly vanities, it might want to heed the words of Darren Johnson AM who told Greenhalgh that as they’re going to have to comment about the plans in the media, it’s better for everyone if their comments are informed by a knowledge of the facts.
These are the sort of whacky ideas that elected bodies lacking a Green contingent never get to hear.
Because a mere two hearings of the same plan can never be enough, I hung around City Hall until it was time to pop along to Brixton for the first public consultation meeting and then returned to City Hall for the Southwark version.
Having heard largely the same presentation four times and chatted over some of the details with MOPAC officials, the Deputy Mayor and the Met Assistant Commissioner Simon Byrne, I hopefully have a pretty good handle on the overall ambition.
Because there’s no money – depending on your political affiliation this is because Labour blew all the money on benefit claimants, the bankers screwed up the economy or Boris wasted it all on a cable car, new buses and axing the WEZ – London has to make a tough choice between the apparently reassuring presence of police stations, or actual police officers.
The MOPAC has decided the best way to fulfil its statutory responsibility to “secure the maintenance of an efficient and effective” police force is to prioritise providing officers to walk the beat, and not toasty warm buildings for them to sit in.
As a result, around 200 Met/MOPAC buildings and locations are to be sold off to free up cash to pay the wages of police officers.
Alongside this ‘Bobbies, not buildings’ reform, the number of supervisors (Sergeants and above) will be reduced and the number of units dedicated to fighting specific crime types will be cut from 107 to 32 – one per borough.
This, we’re told, will mean more coppers out on the streets and more assigned to each borough. Policing will start locally and only work its way upwards when it truly has to.
Instead of a dedicated burglary squad, your local police officers will in future have the skills to preserve the crime scene until the finger-print takers arrive and then possibly even be trusted to go off and find the culprit.
And they’ll be doing all this with fewer busybodies above them checking their compliance with laborious forms.
The stereotypical beat copper bollocked by Inspector Morse and his ilk for allowing the world to wander through his crime scene will be a thing of the past.
The promise is that this will lead to faster investigations, with fewer crimes sitting in a queue waiting for dedicated teams to get around to having a look at them.
That’s not the end of the progress.
In a sign that the Met is ready to catch-up with Sainsbury’s and Tesco, if you’re a victim of, or witness to, a crime, the police will come to you to take your statement.
Better yet, they’ll come whenever and wherever is most convenient to you – the local library (if it’s not been closed), your workplace during lunch hour or a friend’s house if you feel the need of some supportive company.
Overall this looks like a promise of a modern and responsive police service which takes account of the needs and wants of its paymasters, rather than making them jump through hoops to access it.
But all this is not as uncontroversial as perhaps it should be, and that’s largely because the money to pay for these reforms is coming from closing front counters and selling off cop shops.
On Twitter yesterday, Labour MP David Lammy told me that people find reassurance in the “presence of [a] physical building – with officers in it 24/7”.
Maybe, though I suspect the reassurance someone derives from a physical building is linked to their proximity to it and most of us don’t live in a street with a police station. The further the station is from you and the longer you have to walk through unsafe-feeling streets to get to it, the less reassurance it’ll offer.
And I can’t buy into the argument, also put forward by Lammy, that a police station is “a deterrent to criminals”.
Yes, most muggers are probably not stupid enough to mug outside a police station, but the fixed nature of buildings means it’s pretty easy for criminals to steal cars and pinch mobile phones elsewhere without much fear of getting caught.
On the other hand, the chance of encountering a random police patrol just might serve as a deterrent for some types of crime while bumping into the friendly neighbourhood plod on the high street might is likely to be more reassuring to the rest of us than the thought of them whiling away the hours indoors.
By now you’ll have guessed that I’m broadly in favour of the underlying principle behind the plan.
While Lammy and others warn that closing police stations can be seen as withdrawal, I’d suggest that the Met has actually become entrenched in fixed locations to such a degree that it’s not really delivering for Londoners.
These reforms go some way to remedying this, which is not to say that they’re perfect.
At last night’s meetings there were plenty of valid concerns raised.
The Lambeth audience was especially concerned that the reorganisation could undo decades of hard work in building bridges between the police and local community.
Discussing this after the meeting, AC Byrne told me that each Borough Commander would have a set of requirements and results to deliver, but that they’d also have flexibility in how they achieved this.
My sense is that the degree of flexibility will have to be quite wide if community fears are to be fully addressed.
There were also concerns raised that the consultation is a bit of a sham and that not a great deal will get changed at the end of eight weeks worth meetings.
It’d be disappointing if that turns out to be true. In the ‘reasons to be optimistic’ column is the fact that early MOPAC suggestions of merging borough commanders have been dropped.
Cynics suggest this was never going to make the final plan and was always a kite being flown with the intention of looking responsive when it was packed away. MOPAC sources assure me it was a legitimate proposal that was simply too ambitious for London.
What isn’t going to help sell the plans is the suspicion of some sleight of hand around the Safer Neighbourhood Teams.
In future, wards will get one Sergeant, one PCSO and one PC who can’t be abstracted to go and police demos or guard visiting dignitaries, with the claim that on most days they’ll be backed up by many more colleagues.
In both Southwark and Lambeth cynical audience members questioned whether they’d really ever have more than the the guaranteed minimum.
There was also vocal unhappiness that the closure of stations would see teams deploy out of more remote locations, limiting their ability to build real relationships with areas as they’re bused to work in troop carriers.
At the City Hall meeting, things got a little heated between Stephen Greenhalgh and Southwark Council leader Peter John over the issue of buildings that could provide ‘kit and locker’ capacity to allow teams to still deploy locally and potential sites for front counters.
From where I was sitting, it sounded an awful lot like MOPAC is expecting boroughs to provide space at little or no cost. City Hall’s mugging of a tier of Government Boris once promised to treat far better than nasty old Ken seems to be spreading.
Could MOPAC be hoping borough politicians will be less likely to whip up a frenzy over ‘police cuts’ if doing so creates a pressure on them to help plug the gap?
I wouldn’t put it past them.
The now much-reported relocation of police front counters to London’s high streets and shopping centres continues to be a cause for concern. Audience members repeatedly asked whether a counter in a shop was really where people wanted to report an assault.
Any hopes MOPAC had of a calm and reasoned debate about this aspect of the plan were probably blown away by the Standard’s ‘Policeman Pat’ headline above the paper’s story of a pilot to trial front counter services in Post Offices.
But if the ‘buildings or Bobbies’ message to Londoners is blunt, there were blunter sentiments expressed during the morning’s briefing towards police officers concerned that fewer higher ranking officers meant less chances of promotion.
As well as being proud of being able to play a bigger part in crime fighting by having more responsibility, officers looking for promotion should in future be happy to follow the example of their ACPO superiors and relocate to other forces for advancement.
That’s not going to go down well with more ambitious members of the rank and file.
Which might just be why Deputy Mayor Greenhalgh seemed to finally heed my advice and went out of his way to schmooze AMs Jenny Jones, Caroline Pidgeon and Val Shawcross by highlighting their presence at the meetings.
And while I’m on the subject of being nice, allow me to invite you to entertain mild thoughts of praise for Boris for not passing on the unhappy business of shutting police stations to his successor.
Even in this anniversary year, Boris could have rowed back on Tube upgrade expenditure or hiked up fares by even more to stave off a difficult decision.
And perhaps, had he not already borrowed pretty much everything City Hall is allowed to, he might have been tempted to laden Londoners with even more interest payments in future years in order to save himself some political pain.
Instead Boris’s second, and probably final, spell at City Hall is going to see him preside over cuts to both the police and fire services. hardly the end of term rosy glow he might have hoped for.
For taking that on the chin he deserves a word of praise, though a muted one for not attending the consultation meetings himself.