Friday 16 November 2012

Police Commissioner Elections and Devolution

Yesterday I voted in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in England and Wales. The Police and Crime Commissioners will take over the role of the police authorities, through which local council members and independent members. The PCCs will control the budget of the police force and be able to hire/fire the chief constable. They will also set local policing priorities.

The idea for PCCs was presumably partly inspired by the de facto firing of chief constable Ian Blair in London by London mayor Boris Johnson, and the desire to bring the police under local democratic control. While I think there should be democratic oversight of the police, it's wrong to politicise policing so directly - it would be better for democratically elected councils with several responsibilities to hold the police accountable rather than a directly elected individual to do the job.

The campaign hasn't grabbed the national imagination - or the local for that matter - and in general the candidates have stressed that policing will stay independent, so there hasn't been the politicisation of policing that opponents to the plan, like me, feared. But with the powers of the office limited to setting the overall vision of the police, deciding on the chief constable, and making budgetary decisions where the PCC has little control beyond allocating the resources given to him/her, in the future the PCCs are likely going to turn into super-powered elected lobbyists for their policing region, lobbying for more money for more police. To some extent this has happened with the position of London Mayor, so it seems more likely to happen to this smaller office.

It would be better for local democracy to decide on the size of the area that's best suited to bringing decision-making in general closer to people without it being too far removed. If bigger local councils or regional assemblies could decide on matters such as policing and also have some control over the purse strings, then it would give people more control and responsibility over how to approach policing locally. This could be part of a more general devolution of power locally, though this runs up against the unpopularity of regionalisation in England.

Empowering local democracy is a good aim, and some lobbying for the local area is a good thing - after all, MPs are supposed to represent their constituency in the national debate on issues and bat for it - but it needs to have some rational structure that allows people to engage fully with what the priorities across several local issues should be. Proper devolution would create bodies big enough to take on responsibility for their areas and have the power to make substantive decisions, without being too far removed (a tough balance). This would open up a more engaged local debate and boost turnout, rather than creating a English and Welsh political landscape that's littered with elected offices of varying sizes with little rhyme or reason as to how they join up to make streamlined, effective and accountable local government.

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