Charles Wright: Rory Stewart’s local policing plan will be popular. But would it work?

Charles Wright: Rory Stewart’s local policing plan will be popular. But would it work?

Independent mayoral candidate Rory Stewart’s first significant policy proposal, Operation Local, announced this week, is a bold and attention-grabbing initiative – to triple the numbers of uniformed neighbourhood police on the street in his first year in office.

The plan would put all of the 2,369 new officers currently promised for 2020/21 through a combination of government and City Hall funding into ward-based teams, coupled with “surge teams” for crime hotspots and major incidents. These would be in addition to existing specialist response teams and under borough-based command.

It’s a plan, according to Stewart, to “make policing local again: six officers assigned to your area, tripling current numbers out on the streets, building lasting connections with residents…You’ll know their names, have their phone number and see them in your community.”

Neighbourhood policing isn’t new, and it’s popular across the political divides as well as with Londoners, 83 per cent of whom want more police in their neighbourhood, according to Stewart’s polling. It was Ken Livingstone who first put six dedicated officers per ward into safer neighbourhood teams, calling neighbourhood policing his “top priority in policing”, before progressive funding cuts took their toll. Mayoral election campaigns have always focused on “bobbies on the beat”. 

Mayor Khan told the London Assembly this month that he wanted “most” of the government’s promised new officers to be on the streets, and the boroughs’ representative body London Councils has called for 600 new neighbourhood officers to help “create safer, more resilient communities”.

Good politics. But is it the best policy? Not everyone agrees that maintaining a universal neighbourhood service is the best response to the diverse nature of crime across the capital. 

In the 2008 mayoral election campaign Richard Barnes, later deputy mayor to Boris Johnson, referred to safer neighbourhood teams “twiddling their thumbs” in “safe” wards, and College of Policing research on visible patrolling, cited by Stewart’s team in support of their policy, itself suggests that “just having more people or responding more quickly…does not necessarily reduce crime or reassure people.”

Both the College and the Institute of Government have argued for a targeted approach, with the Institute calling for “hot spot policing to concentrate police activities and resources in areas where crime is concentrated”.

Detailed work on neighbourhood policing by the independent Police Foundation thinktank also highlights the need to recognise that neighbourhoods are “increasingly varied”, and the complexity of balancing reactive demand with proactive work acknowledging the “enduring value of locally embedded, problem-oriented practitioners.”

Their research found issues of neighbourhood recruitment and retention, as well as frequent “extraction” to police incidents elsewhere, and the Met has itself argued that increased resources also need to address demand at detective level, the pressure of dealing with online evidence, and the continuing need to support anti-terrorist work, public order in the capital, hate crime and domestic violence as well as targeting violent crime.

Operation Local also includes a return to a borough command structures which will need to be fleshed out, coming as it would just a year after the Met – in the context of £900 million funding cuts since 2010 – completed an efficiency drive that replaced its borough-based structure with 12 large “Basic Command Units”.

It’s just the first part of his plan to tackle crime, according to Stewart, and he acknowledges that addressing the causes of crime and working with young people is complex and longer-term. But it is already a “compelling answer”, according to the Evening Standard. The campaigning to come, and the mayoral election itself on 7 May, will show whether or not Londoners agree.

Photograph by Omar Jan.

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Categories: Analysis

1 Comment

  1. Philip Virgo says:

    It is good that Rory Stewart is trying to unravel the issues of policing in London and why “Peelite” principles have been abandoned in favour of meeting central targets using the kind of “occupying force” tactics that would have appalled the Duke of Wellington, who did not want his veterans set against the communities from which they came.

    The bigger issue is to rebuild (or in many case build from scratch) relationships between local police and the communities they supposedly serve and protect.

    Given that in Inner London Boroughs like Lambeth around 40% of the population was born outside the UK and 25% have non-UK passports this will not be easy.

    Six police in a Ward Team is not enough, even if they were not regularly “abstracted” for the emergency of the day/hour. 80% of their work load is with tasks not regarded by most of the public as “policing”.

    The use of volunteers (whether warranted as Special Constables or not, as with manning enquiry desks or victim support) by the Met Police has collapsed since the Olympics.

    The changes made in 2011 to remove blanket restrictions on recruiting Specials Constables with specialist skills (e.g. security, clinical, youth work) have not yet been implemented in London. How does a teenager find out how to become a police cadet? (You try finding out).

    Every Safer Neighbourhood Team needs access to a least couple of dozen volunteers (of known “provenance”) who can provide continuity of contact and intelligence.

    Every Command needs access to panels of experts (both volunteers and those available on zero hours retainers so that they are covered by their professional indemnity insurance and/or police “contacts”) to handle, for example, incidents requiring cyber, linguistic or mental health expertise.

    Only then can we begin to give Londoners faith that the Met is fit for purpose as a police force, and not just an arm of Government, keeping a lid on dissent and disorder. The memories of the 2011 collapse of law and order (akin to the sporadic riots of the 18th century and the fears that led to creation of Met Police) haunt far too many of us.

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