Huge leap in policing charge can't be repeated next year, Crime Commissioner warns

South Yorkshire PCC Dr Alan Billings
South Yorkshire PCC Dr Alan Billings

South Yorkshire residents will see the price they pay towards the cost of policing the county soar by 14 per cent next year as the force’s leaders continue to grapple with ‘legacy’ costs from Hillsborough and the Rotherham grooming scandal while working to improve services to the public.

The amount of cash the Government provided for policing has been diminishing in real terms since austerity started to bite and the settlement for next year has been more generous than many expected – and was coupled with an opportunity to raise the cash raised alongside Council Tax to increase by 14 per cent.

The county’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Dr Alan Billings, has decided to take the maximum charge which equates to £24 more per year for homes in the Council Tax band ‘D’, or 14 per cent.

Most homes in South Yorkshire are in the low bands of ‘A’ and ‘B’ however – and in cash terms the increase will be 31 pence and 36 pence per week, respectively.

Dr Billings announced his decision at a meeting of the Public Accountability Board, where he holds Chief Constable Stephen Watson and his force to account.

He believes the hike will effectively be a one-off, with future increases expected to be more modest although Government policy has put an increased burden on residents rather than Whitehall to pay for policing.

He said: “I am very aware that many households in South Yorkshire are struggling.

“It is not an easy decision to have to make. I think it is a decision you can make this way once. I think an increase in subsequent years has to be modest.

“Up to 2023 we are looking at more modest increases in the precept, rather than a big one like this,” he said.

The county's four council leaders have all been consulted and agreed to the increase, Dr Billings said.

A difficulty the force faces is the looming legal costs and compensation bills which still surround the Hillsborough disaster, the Rotherham child sex abuse scandal and Operation Stovewood which followed, investigating historic crimes.

It is anticipated police will have to pay £179m by 2024 to meet those costs, with £149 potentially coming from the Government in ‘special grants’.

But that still leaves £30m to find that would otherwise have been spent on improved policing for the county.

And had Dr Billings not raised the maximum available locally this year, it could have presented an opportunity for the Home Office to question whether it should support the force with extra funding.

That gap between what the Government might offer in ‘special grants’ and the actual cost remains because the force is expected to shoulder some of the costs for each claim and talks have been going for some time to try to minimise the impact of that arrangement.

Chief Constable Stephen Watson said: “I welcome the current position around monies, not because things are not tight.

“We are still very much in the nip and tuck mode. It puts us on a footing so all our plans are sustainable.

“Everything we are doing in terms of organisational reform, the benefits will go to pay for extra police as opposed to paying down a gap in the budget,” he said.

Dr Billing’s budget allows the force to recruit new officers every month until March 2020, the largest recruitment drive since before the financial crisis more than a decade ago.

While many will go into neighbourhood policing which is most readily seen by the public, others will be used to bolster policing services to which the public remain largely unaware, such as counter-terrorism work and tracking internet-based sex abuse.

“This is the most optimistic I have been, around matters financial for some time,” said Mr Watson.