The latest crime figures for the year to September 2020 showed the Devon and Cornwall force area had the second lowest overall crime rate in England and Wales, but was the ninth lowest for violent crime.
Devon and Cornwall Police and Crime Panel, made up of councillors from across the region, voted to approve the budget at a meeting on Friday morning. The spending plan was the last from the Conservative commissioner ahead of an election for the role due to take place in May, which was postponed from 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Councillors also backed extra recommendations outlined by Cllr Gareth Derrick, a member of the panel and the Labour PCC candidate, for the commissioner to consider how to tackle policing the summer surge of visitors, look into increasing the number of police community support officers, and continue to lobby for extra government funding.
Cllr Derrick said he supported the investment in front line staff, but described the increase in council tax of more than a third during the commissioner’s five years in office as “another Conservative rip-off”, shifting the burden of funding to local tax payers.
The meeting heard that the force will see an extra 141 officers recruited under the Government’s national programme. Another 40 officers will be funded by £551,000 from the council tax income, taking the total number in the Devon and Cornwall force to 3,422 by the end of the year, the highest for 10 years, and 3,610 by April 2023. The commissioner’s five-year plan until 2025 proposes keeping the number of PCSOs at 150.
The panel voted to approve the commissioner’s budget to raise almost £144million from council tax payers, out of total planned spending of £349million. That equals an annual bill for Band D of just under £237, up by £14.92 or 6.7per cent.
The Government annual target for inflation – the measure of the increase in the price of goods and services – is 2per cent, and the latest figures show the rate was 0.6per cent in December.
Police officers and civilian staff will have their pay frozen in September, following a 2.5per cent increase in the current year under a national pay settlement.
The commissioner set out a series of investment in services for next year included in the budget:
£626,000 for improved customer service in contact centres – increasing the staff numbers by 22 in the contact centres to cut waiting times;
£300,000 on drone technology – to improve public safety and provide a more responsive service for searches, public order events and evidence gathering;
£1.15million on crime investigation – to fund 29 police staff investigators to resolve crimes more quickly and have a positive impact on violent and sexual crime offenders and victims. This will also provide improvements for investigations that relate to proactive pursuits and serious and organised crime;
£316,000 on professional standards – to provide additional resources to the teams that deal with the relatively new Conduct and Complaint Regulations 2020. This will improve the timeliness and frequency of hearings and appeals;
£850,000 on enhancing data reliability, accuracy and security – to improve the quality of the information held to drive crime prevention and public safety;
£150,000 on Blue Light collaboration – to further enhance opportunities to collaborate with other emergency services to include coastal and maritime settings;
£80,000 on Special Constabulary – to further innovate and support the role and activities of the Special Constabulary which could include further benefits following the enhanced allowance pilot scheme;
£551,000 to increase police officer numbers – to further increase the number of officers recruited to Devon and Cornwall. This would see a further 40 officers recruited over and above the national uplift target of 141 announced by the Home Office.
Ms Hernandez told the panel that the proposed budget was “robust and sustainable” and would create new jobs at a time of economic uncertainty.
She said: “The budget reflects the views of the people we represent. We know it is aligned with what our community expects of policing, it is tailored to our community’s needs both fighting and preventing crime.”
The commissioner highlighted the measures to tackle “unrelenting escalating violence” by working with partners.
Cllr Derrick welcomed the increase in investment in frontline officers, technology and the contact centre. But he said Government cuts in funding had taken a “huge toll” and left the force in a “precarious” financial position.
During a session questioning the commissioner about the budget, he accused Ms Hernandez of breaking a promise made to the panel last year that she would “never again raise council tax in this extreme way”.
Cllr Derrick said the rise in the council tax contribution to policing had risen by more than a third over the five years Ms Hernandez had been in office, which was six times the rate of inflation.
Low income families and small businesses would be hit the hardest, and would be bitter to know that from every extra £1 they were being charged, only 60p would go towards extra police.
“To be honest, to me it feels like another Conservative rip-off,” Cllr Derrick told the meeting. “It’s simply not fair that these costs are being shoved on to local residents in this way, and they certainly are not getting the robust value for money that they would want to see,” he added.
He said the lack of increase in PCSO numbers was effectively a cut, and there was no mention in the budget of the summer surge in visitors to the region, which was one of the biggest issues faced by the force.
Ms Hernandez agreed she had stated she never wanted to raise council tax again, but was told by the panel that was something she could not promise, and was inappropriate to promise to the community. She said she did not want to ask for an increase, but ended up having to do it, a situation local authorities also faced.
She said the force had struggled to keep up with the huge increase in the number of contacts from the public in recent years, including new channels through email and online, but after investing in technology at the contact centre now was the time to invest in more staff.
Chief constable Shaun Sawyer told the panel of his concerns that the pandemic was worsening inequalities, and said the force would work with local authorities “to stop the vulnerable falling through our safety nets”.
He said the budget measures would allow the force to be ready for the end of the pandemic restrictions when the night-time economy returned, and he highlighted investments in roads and on the coast to tackle an estimated 100 preventable deaths.
He said priorities included tackling violence against women and girls, county lines drug networks, online exploitation of children, and serious and organised crime including drug gangs. The budget would also fund an increase in the number of neighbourhood beat managers.
He said: “I believe this is the time to invest in local policing, more than any other time.”
The panel voted to approved the budget and additional recommendations for the commissioner to:
consider increasing the number of police community support officers instead of some of the extra constables;
reflect a prevention and public public health approach to policing in future spending increases;
work with the chief constable and local authorities to consider how to tackle the summer surge in visitors;
include measures in a future financial strategy to work with local authorities on measures to reduce carbon and tackle climate change;
provide a detailed risk assessment of financial risk to the force;
continue to lobby government for a “fairer share” of central funding due to a £40million shortfall compared to the national average.
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