Lisa Townsend is the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey.
On Sunday, I laid a wreath in Guildford Cathedral during a service to commemorate those military and civilian servicemen and women who went into war bravely, giving up so much for our country.
While our police officers and front-line staff start each shift not knowing what danger it may bring, we are fortunate that they can reliably predict they will be back at home with their families and loved ones at the end of each long day or night.
In common with our NHS and care staff, the job they do is relatively safe, but we must not forget that they do so in order that we may go about our own lives in the knowledge that when we need them most, they will be there. Two essential services that protect life and liberty, but the way we talk about how we fund them is so different.
Council tax often tops polls as the most unpopular tax in the UK. Some see it as an outdated way of calculating wealth, others see it as hitting the least well-off disproportionately. But something else makes council different from the many other ways governments have of extracting our heard-earned cash, and that’s the annual bill we all receive through the post. You will all be familiar with the breakdown between district or borough or city, adult social care, fire authority and, of course, policing.
The contribution towards policing (the ‘precept’) is usually described on the bill in England and Wales as ‘Police and Crime Commissioner’ and the amount is indeed set by your PCC. However, we do not simply pluck a number from thin air – much discussion, deliberation, consultation and sometimes, agonising, goes into the process.
When I was elected Surrey’s Police and Crime Commissioner six months ago, I was told (along with every new PCC) that I had control of the £261 million budget, to do with as I see fit. The reality, as I am sure ConservativeHome readers will appreciate, is of course very different. In practice, the chief constable is handed 99 per cent of that budget and although ultimately the PCC decides on the level of the precept, it is for the chief constable to make the case for the resources he or she believes they need in order to carry out the functions we all expect from our police service. More on the remaining one per cent another time.
At a time when household incomes and outgoings are looking uncertain as we grapple with rising energy and fuel costs – as well as inflation, the decision on how much more to ask of our residents is genuinely challenging. Chief constables will understandably seek to persuade commissioners to increase by the maximum allowed while we, as elected politicians, close to our electorate, require assurances that every extra taxpayer penny requested is going to be used wisely and on residents’ priorities.
At the most recent Budget, the Government announced a further £5.9 billion for the NHS, on top of the £12 billion a year set out in September. We will pay for this through a rise in National Insurance and although it has not been without debate, that the NHS needs more money seems a largely settled issue. For policing, debates will be had up and down the country with residents, including a mandated consultation, on whether we want to pay more.
It probably won’t surprise you that the single issue which comes up at every meeting I go to is visible policing. Residents and businesses want more of it. So do I. But you may be unaware that 82 per cent of the policing budget goes on officer and staff wages. The Government’s uplift programme has so far delivered 83 new officers for Surrey and through this year’s precept rise, Surrey residents are funding a further 77 additional officers and operational staff. While most of these new officers are going through recruitment and training now, it does mean that our residents will see more officers on their streets in the coming years.
As a PCC I must balance the needs of my local police force with the ability and desire of local residents to pay more and more for the service that protects us all. More police will mean safer streets. It will mean that our children and vulnerable are safer online from those predators who wish to both physically and financially harm them. It will allow more officers to work with domestic abuse victims and the criminally exploited. As a Conservative I want to ensure that every pound that goes into policing makes us safer and that savings are found so that taxpayers can be confident they are getting are getting value for their money, and that includes more officers in our neighbourhoods. But I doubt it will make your council tax bill any more welcome.