Not long after I was first elected I received a briefing on police finances. We were on a knife edge, I was told. Central government funding cuts threatened the front line. Raise the precept, I was told, get what you can, while you can.
Everything about police and police authority thinking at that time was dominated by fear. The whole system operated on fear of cuts, fear of failing (or been seen to fail), fear of the new, fear of the impact on staff.
With fear came an obsession with control. Where you see uncertainty, control what you can. Central funds are falling, so get what you can locally. You need savings? Stop people doing things: squeeze recruitment, freeze investment, avoid risk, stick with the familiar. And that is what happened.
Fear and control-freakery paralyse decisions. They both assume that in difficult times you have no choices. All you can do is react to what is being done to you. Neither is true.
The only thing to do with fear is face it. All change brings uncertainty. Better to take a chance than face the certainty that change will be forced upon you.
My team began by focussing relentlessly on public needs: more visible, accessible policing to prevent crime. I appointed a new Chief Constable. We agreed to restructure, and in some cases remove, departments. I cut senior salaries – the top 10 now cost 20 per cent less than before – and insisted on finding the right people, not just the nearest people.
We identified training needs and worked with Unison, where we had some of the wisest heads around. I put money aside to pay for the change. The Chief Constable encouraged frontline decisions rather than slavish processes: “doing the right thing, not just doing things right”.
We now have 30 more officers to support our vast rural areas. We have new mobile IT, set to save us 100,000 hours of frontline time. That is thanks to better decisions.
We are on course to save £8.8m by 2016 from a budget of around £100m. I made clear two years ago that we would invest to deliver better policing for less money. We have.
Now we are able to lighten the load on taxpayers. The police will not get any less money. From 2015 I will use money we have already saved to reduce a Band D taxpayer’s bill by five per cent.
I am proud of that achievement. Cutting the precept was never the aim and there is much still to do to improve what we offer our public. But passing on savings is the consequence and symbol of a leaner, more focussed rural police service. It is a sign of success.
Extraordinarily, parts of the police service seem to measure success by how much money they can spend. They see smaller budgets as a sign of weakness. Like other parts of government, they are fixated on how much money they control.
Trusting people and accepting uncertainty does not come naturally to the public sector, which is why it wastes so much of the talent of its staff. Austerity and reform will make more demands in coming years. Local government will have to overcome its risk-averse, controlling instincts.
Local politicians will have to flex their muscles and demand change. That can be greatly aided by the power of direct election. Public sector reform will require more powerful local politicians, with control of budgets not committees, to break the conspiracy of eager worthies and officials who oversee the current system.
How did I cut the precept?
By demanding change, through a strong team, with tough decisions.
Perhaps the more pertinent question is why?
The answer to that is simple. Because this is not our money. It belongs to people who earn it. If we don’t need it, we shouldn’t take it.