Nobody likes to see money being wasted. Sometimes public bodies need to spend a large amount of money on something, such as a new hospital building or a new school, which will save lives or create a more productive country in the long run. But whether the money comes via the Borough Council or the County Council or the national Government, if it is taxpayers’ money then elected representatives need to be careful that it is being spent in a way which benefits society, and keep a tight rein if costs start to spiral out of control.
Which is why I am pleased that the County Council has asked an independent engineering specialist to review the costs of the Upper Orwell Crossing. This is the sensible thing to do at this stage. As most people know, I was never in favour of this bridge in the first place, but for those who were, it was always going to be necessary to keep the costs within the budget available. If that turns out to be impossible, it is far better to discover that now, after an interim investigation, rather than spending more money on detailed design and consultations.
One thing we don’t need an investigation to discover is that Suffolk Police are seriously under-funded. A week ago I wrote to the Chief Constable and the Police & Crime Commissioner, urging them to think again about their plans to cut the Police Community Support Officers – PCSOs – which we have become so familiar with since they were introduced about 20 years ago. The number of PCSOs we are currently meant to have – the “establishment” – is 107, but the actual number has already been run down to about 80, and if the Police restructuring plans go ahead, there could be as few as 30-odd across the whole of Suffolk.
The plans involve re-allocating full police officers to neighbourhood teams. But like all police forces, Suffolk operates a strict hierarchy of priorities, to make sure that their officers attend the most serious crimes first, and so my very strong expectation is that many of these neighbourhood officers will spend much of their time away from the neighbourhood they are supposedly attached to.
It’s not just the reduction in PCSOs which will have a serious effect on policing in Suffolk. We have already lost a substantial number of police officers across our County in the past 8 years. And police staff have been reduced by over a fifth, from 1258 in 2011 to under a thousand now. A substantial number of those may be at risk of losing their jobs over the coming years – the Chief Constable says that savings will have to come from parts of the service away from the front line, including “back office” functions. The trouble with making “back office” savings is that much of the “back office” work is absolutely vital, such as communicating with the public or storing evidence, and if there aren’t enough “back office” staff to do it, the work will have to be done by police officers. That is both more expensive and often less efficient, because police officers have other things to do and will not necessarily have the specific experience to do the job quickly and accurately.
The truth is, there is no fat to be lost in our police service. I absolutely support the work of the Chief Constable and the whole constabulary to provide the best possible service to our County within the budget they have been set – of course I do. But the budget is just not adequate. Suffolk Police receive an overall annual income of about £50 million less than Norfolk Police. There is simply no logic or justification for that. Suffolk is the third worst-funded police force in the UK, per head of the population. There is only so far any organisation can go to make itself “more cost effective” before the core of its operations starts to suffer. We are already seeing substantial rises in crime – especially violent crime. I am not prepared to believe that the reductions in staff – police officers, PCSOs and “back office” police staff – are not a major contributory factor.
Sometimes public bodies need to spend more in order to make life tolerable for the rest of us. I believe most Suffolk people recognise that our police have reached that point. I hope I can count on that message going to the Government loud and clear from our Police & Crime Commissioner too.