I want to start this week by saying a big thank you. Over the past four years I have asked for the public’s assistance on several occasions in order to help me make sometimes difficult decisions about the policing budget and strategy.
Thousands of you have responded to requests to complete surveys on road safety, the force strength and my police and crime plan, which has always been to better connect communities to the police and other services.
While some consultations and polling might be conducted to give the impression of public involvement in decision making – what I call ‘the illusion of inclusion’ – I take my duty to seek the views of the public very seriously.
Results of surveys have helped enormously to inform decisions like the one not to press ahead with a merger between Dorset and Devon and Cornwall’s police forces, when an extensive test of public opinion failed to convince me there was much appetite for one big three counties force.
So I’d like to thank all those who have spent their time telling me their thoughts over the years, as I ask you all to keep doing it.
This has been an extraordinary year for all aspects of society, policing included. While coronavirus meant many organisations had to stop or pause their operations our emergency services had to continue. And changes to front-line policing continued. Our focus on recruiting police officers, the largest recruitment in a generation, many of our Police Community Support Officer and Volunteer Specials have successfully become Police Constables. Their ranks have been swollen by people from all walks of life, with a former estate agent to a multi-lingual migrant from Eastern Europe in the ranks of the latest cohort.
The combination of local funding through the council tax precept and a national uplift fund has meant that this year we have added to police officer strength steadily for the past four financial years. To give you an idea of how that has advanced, in the 2017/18 financial year officer numbers grew by 20, this year it was by 144.
Impressively, although coronavirus caused some initial delays to training and recruitment, we are now seeing new cohorts of officers ‘pass out’ at Middlemoor Police Headquarters on a regular basis. In many ways it is ‘business as usual’ although sadly family members are unable to attend these sometimes moving ceremonies, and recruits have to wear face masks.
This recruitment drive would not have been possible without the support of our communities who have told me year after year that they would be happy to ‘pay more to get more’ to boost officer numbers. However, I know this sentiment is waning because so many are facing additional financial challenges due to the pandemic.
In our large police force area, with its sparsely populated rural areas, towns, villages and cities, I think that this addition to police officer numbers is important. In various submissions to Government I make the case that although we have one of the lowest recorded crime rates in the country, we also have one of the lowest ratios of police officers to members of the public – particularly when we welcome visitors in the summer months and during school holidays.
Last year I made the decision to increase the precept - the part of the council tax budget that pays for policing – to cope with increased costs, continue with this recruitment drive and to pay for innovative projects that will help police and partners make Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly an even safer and more prosperous place to live.
This year I am minded not to impose a significant rise.
Our businesses have never faced a year like this one. Government schemes like the furlough and Eat of To Help Out – so vital when a large part of your economy relies on the hospitality trade – have helped us weather the storm so far.
I am optimistic about the longer-term prospects for our part of the world. Our beautiful part of the wold has a world-class tourism and hospitality sector, combined with universities and a burgeoning knowledge economy that attract people from around the globe.
But I do think people are going to need all the help they can get as we enter the next phase of the pandemic.
We still have some time before a decision on the 2021/22 budget is due, and I will spend that time talking to communities and partners about their views, and asking people to share their views by completing what is my most comprehensive budget survey to date.
The survey takes around seven minutes to complete and can be found here.
The survey will run until midnight on Sunday, January 3, 2021.
And to all who let me know their views – many thanks.