Crime boss wants to protect public against a major rise in the price they for policing next year

South Yorkshire’s policing boss wants to see next year’s rise in costs for supporting the county’s force capped at no more than two per cent next year in recognition that many residents are struggling financially.

By Paul Whitehouse
Wednesday, 20th November 2019, 11:34 am
Updated Wednesday, 20th November 2019, 1:01 pm
Dr Alan Billings
Dr Alan Billings

Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings has to set a budget which will cover the costs of South Yorkshire Police in the 12 months from April, using a combination of cash from the Home Office and money raised locally as part of the Council Tax bill.

This year the local element of that package shot up by 14 per cent – a rise Dr Billings made clear would be unsustainable, but which allowed the force to recruit much-needed additional officers for the first time since austerity struck.

The General Election means the grant settlement from the Home Office – normally announced in December – will not be known until into the New Year and that leaves very little time for the PCC to work with Chief Constable Stephen Watson to draw up a budget.

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That will have to be put out to public consultation and agreed by the South Yorkshire Crime and Policing Panel, made up of councillors from the county’s four district councils as well as individual council leaders before it can be implemented.

Dr Billings said the timescale meant two rounds of consultation would take place, an early ‘general’ survey of public opinions followed by a detailed assessment when the final figures were known.

But he has indicated he does not want the increase to the policing precept, paid as part of the Council Tax bill, to go up by anything more than two per cent.

He accepts there may be challenges because the last Government announced 20,000 additional police officers in the next few years without specifying where the cash for them would be sourced, meaning a new Home Secretary could tell PCCs they may have to find some of the money.

If that happened, the expectation in South Yorkshire was that savings would have to be found to balance the books.

Delays caused by the General Election “Puts the timetable very tight indeed,” he said.

“What you consult the public on is quite difficult because we don’t know what is likely to be.

“I think we will have to have a two stage consultation, in very general terms how people feel about policing and if they are prepared to pay more.

“I don’t think we can look at more than two per cent (increase). That assumes the Government will pick up the extra costs of policing. If they don’t, it will push it back onto us.

“People in South Yorkshire are really up against it and we cannot really go beyond that.

“If we cannot go much beyond that, we may have to look at savings from the force,” he said.

Uncertainty around police spending stems from the fact that Government contributions have been made on a year by year basis, said Dr Billings.

That leaves force bosses unable to make longer term plans with any confidence they will be supported by Government investment in policing.

He suggested that settlements spanning three years would be more appropriate – giving enough time to allow PCCs and their Chief Constables to plan developments which could result in longer-term efficiencies.

Until a new Government is established after the General Election, PCCs will not know what attitudes the Home Office will have towards funding police, though Dr Billings said it appeared all major parties were in favour of increasing officer numbers.

“The thing I would most like to see is settlements that go beyond one year,” he said.

“You cannot plan as sensibly as you would like to do with year on year settlements. You need to be able to took ahead, three years is a good time, it gives you the chance to plan in a sensible way.

“You can spend now, in order to save later. You cannot do that easily if you only know year on year what your money is going to be,” he said.

In recent years the balance of finance has shifted, with Governments reducing the amount of cash they put into the nation’s police forces and expecting Police and Crime Commissioners to collect more through Council Tax precepts.

That led to last year’s 14 per cent increase in South Yorkshire. While that is a large increase, the county’s low property prices compared to many parts of the UK means the actual additional income generated was less than many forces would have experienced.

*A new Government after next month’s General Election could mean changes at the Home Office and that situation could be more sensitive for South Yorkshire Police than most forces, because of its ‘legacy’ commitments which could still cost many millions of pounds.

The financial fall-out from the Hillsborough disaster, now more than 30 years ago, and the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal remain such that police will not be able to finance compensation payments from their routine budgets.

That means relying on the Home Office to provide special grants, but penalties similar to the excess on an insurance policy can apply – still leaving the force with significant contributions.

The PCC has been negotiating for some time that all outstanding cases should be treated as one claim, with a single excess payment rather than multiple charges, but no conclusion has been reached so far.

If that was settled in South Yorkshire’s favour it could save the force a six figure sum, a significant amount when the force is already expected to need to find savings next year.