The train journey from London to Carmarthen takes four hours, offers sublime views in its final stages over the Towy estuary, and is even more worthwhile if one is able to talk, on arrival, to Christopher Salmon, Police and Crime Commissioner for Dyfed-Powys Police.
I happened to get there ahead of him, so was able to admire the gateway of Carmarthen Castle, the centre of Norman government in medieval south and west Wales.
On 30th March 1555, in the small square below the castle, Dr Robert Ferrar, Bishop of St David’s, was burned at the stake during the Marian persecutions, after being accused of 56 charges including
“abuse of his authority, covetousness, wilful negligence, folly, and undue favouritism towards the Welsh”.
Salmon, by contrast, will on 5th May this year seek re-election as Conservative candidate for PCC in Dyfed-Powys. His first (and to Conservative headquarters in London unexpected) victory, in 2012, was by just over 1,000 votes, on a low turnout of 16 per cent.
This time he has a record on which to stand, and the turnout will be much higher, about 40 per cent, for elections to the Welsh Assembly are being held on the same day.
Salmon was born in 1978 (making him the youngest of all PPCs), was brought up on the family farm near Presteigne, in Mid-Wales, went to Pembroke College, Oxford, served for five years in the Rifles in Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq, realised during the Army’s defeat in Basra that he wanted to go into politics, began by standing, unsuccessfully but enjoyably, as Conservative candidate in Llanelli during the 2010 general election, and is an occasional contributor to ConHome.
Two things which leap out from this interview are his decision (by no means imitated by all PCCs) to cut top salaries in the Dyfed-Powys force, and his use of his freedom to commission services from outside the force, for example for drug and alcohol treatment, in order to save police officers’ time for the things they know how to do, such as catching criminals.
Many people still find the role of PPC a bit hazy. In Salmon’s view, it is to supply the leadership which changes the whole outlook of a force. He has cut the cost of policing to council-tax payers by five per cent.
But I began by asking how he could possibly represent such a vast area.
ConHome: “How big is your patch?”
Salmon: “Dyfed-Powys is 4,000 square miles, which is 52 per cent of the land mass of Wales. And for comparison purposes, it’s about the size of the Lebanon.”
Salmon: “That’s where the comparisons end.”
ConHome: “How long does it take you to get from one end of it to the other?”
Salmon: “I’ve never done it completely tip to toe, but it would probably be a good three and a half, four hours, from St David’s or Milford Haven almost all the way up to Oswestry.”
ConHome: “And how do you achieve any sense of commonality in such an immense area?”
Salmon: “Well the short answer is I don’t think you do. There is a degree of commonality, there’s the Welsh commonality.
“But the logic of this devolved police authority in charge of our devolved police service is that you need to devolve within the organisation as well.
“I’ve made a very consistent effort to scrap targets, for example – to encourage local officers to make the right decisions for their local areas, by not imposing upon them a ridiculous list of things they must be achieving in different areas.
“The chief constable has reflected that in his work. It takes a long time to change that culture. The police are very hierarchical, but particularly since the Labour years, they’ve been a very process, figures-orientated organisation, very deferential to the centre, and a lot of their professional freedom has been removed by the imposition of bureaucratic measures and targets and all the rest of it.
“So the creation of PCCs has loosened that considerably at one level, and my role I think in this particular part of the world is to loosen it again, so that Llanelli, which is an ex-industrial urban town in south Wales, can deal with some of its problems, local officers know what they are and they can deal with them, at the same time as Llanidloes, in mid-Wales, which is a classic rural market town, can deal with its problems in its way.
“My trick is to do that, whilst also keeping a close eye on how they’re performing respectively, and to make sure that standards are consistent, and those local officers are responding in the way the public want them to. And I spend a lot of my time on the road having surgeries, meetings and events with local organisations.
“My purpose is to be a public representative, to listen to the public, to respond to their needs, to put their needs front and centre of what the police are up to, but not just what the police are up to – I think this is the key part of the role that is still to be developed – but what other organisations are up to that contribute to keeping us safe.
“And it’s what people talk about as the ‘and crime’ part – it’s questionable nomenclature but it’s nevertheless what the role has ended up as. So that we are there to scrutinise the chief constable, to hold the force to account for what the public want, the priorities we set, chosen by the public in election, we control the budget – in my case about a hundred million pounds.
“But we are about more than just man-marking the chief constable. We have a power to commission services from other organisations.”
ConHome: “Have you done that?”
Salmon: “Yes, take for example drug programmes, I with the local health board here in Dyfed, so it’s the three counties of Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, we were both when I started commissioning drug intervention services from the same organisation, with separate contracts but a total cost of about three million quid.
“I approached the local health board and said, we’re doing the same thing here, why don’t we do it once, and they were up for renewal, that contract.
“So we co-commissioned the service, and I get all my criminal justice outcomes out of the contract, they have all their health outcomes in the contract, and we expanded it to go beyond drugs into alcohol, which is obviously much more of a problem here than drugs.
“Now as a result we have a bigger service with for me half the cost, with new providers set up by a single contract. So whether you go to your GP with a drug problem or an alcohol problem, or you end up getting nicked on the street and put in custody with a drug or an alcohol problem, you will end up with the same service.
“And that is something that could be done because I was a single decision-maker with a budget and authority just to do it, and I could go and talk to the health board and say how are we going to do this, and they could say ‘Sounds good’, and that’s it. No committees to navigate. You can do it straight away.
“We also went into partnership with Gwalia, a big mid-Wales housing association, and they of course are dealing with many of our problem clients as landlords, and the police were dealing with them as police officers.
” So we have a partnership with them now where we pay them to take referrals, to write letters, establish acceptable behaviour contracts, mediate disputes, all that kind of stuff.
“And all of this is about getting work off the police’s plate which is not really what they’re for. The police officers are brilliant at catching criminals and investigating crime and locking people up.
“We don’t want them tied up in endless neighbourhood disputes or worrying about drug intervention programmes.
“The one I would really like to crack and haven’t is missing children – children who abscond from homes or abscond from school.
“Because the police spend a huge amount of time tracking them down. They’re usually the same people, they go to the same place, it becomes a kind of game of cat and mouse, but the police are desperately worried, they don’t want to not look, because this could end up being someone who ends up being exploited or whatever.”
ConHome: “So who would you turn to for help there?”
Salmon: “I’m still scratching my head about it a bit. But I think there must be a better way than having warranted officers running round housing estates trying to play hide and seek with miscreants who they have to find because we don’t want them getting swept up in gangs and all the rest of it.
“But on the other hand, nine times out of ten everyone knows exactly where they are, and they know they’re going to come back. But it consumes a huge amount of police time.
“I don’t have a quick answer, but I think the fire and rescue services could do quite a lot of that. There might be some mountain volunteer rescue teams who could do a bit of it.
“There has to be a way of tapping better into the existing networks of people and local organisations which have an eye on these kind of problems, than simply just relying on the police to be the backstop service that picks up where the school hasn’t kept a close eye on the pupils and they’ve therefore run away.”
We live in an era of cuts. Salmon decided these must start at the top:
“When I arrived, if you listed the top ten salaries, and if you list them again now, in both my office and the police force they cost 20 per cent less.
“I do think senior public officials are paid too much. The better paid chief constables get paid more than the Prime Minister. You compare it to the army, a chief constable gets paid more than a brigadier who’s in charge of more people in a much more dangerous environment.
“Now that’s not a criticism of the individuals who do the work. I think it is a symptom of poor government, poor accountability, and a lack of transparency that has allowed that situation to arise, and I think when I arrived there was a palpable sense of entitlement about it as well.
“There were seven and a half per cent bonuses just for staying in your job for a year on top of those salaries. I thought that was unacceptable so I stopped it. And I recruited a new chief constable, and I did reduce his salary against what the previous incumbent had.
“We decided we would reduce his salary and that we would also make that very public, and when we did the roadshow round the force, I explained that I had reduced his salary, so he could say, ‘Look, we’re going to face some very tough decisions. I’ve done my bit and we’ll do the rest.’
“And I have to say it had quite a transformative impact on how people talked about what jobs they might have after a reorganisation and so on, because there wasn’t that same sense of ‘I’ve just got to get out of this what I can’.
“Obviously it was fiscally prudent, but more than that, I think it was psychologically important to show that leadership, and I think it’s a great credit to him that he did.
“I know some of my PCC colleagues took different views of how much chief constables should be paid, but that’s for them to decide. You have the opportunity to vary the salary plus or minus ten per cent and I went minus seven. Some went plus ten. Well that’s for them and their electorates to discuss.”