This time last year I asked residents of Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly whether they would support an increase in the precept – the amount we all pay in our council tax bill – to support improvements to Devon and Cornwall Police.
The force was facing rising costs that included a significant shortfall in its pension fund, combined with an increase in calls for help from people in our communities.
The grant from central government helped offset these costs, but it was clear that unless there was an increase to the precept then cuts would have to be made. To stand still, meeting our obligations to the pension fund and address rising costs, would mean an increase to the band D council tax bill of £17 a year, any less than this would mean savings would have to be found.
It was not a proposition that I or the Chief Constable relished, as over two years we had managed to increase the number of officers serving in Devon and Cornwall. Halting or reversing this trend was something that I did not feel our communities would support.
A poll of Devon and Cornwall households showed that a slim majority (52%) of 4,231 respondents supported the maximum increase allowable without a referendum of £24 for a Band D property. This would enable the recruitment of an additional 85 officers in addition to rising costs. In the largest force area in England, with one of the lowest police officer densities, every boot on the ground helps and this increase was supported by the Police and Crime Panel which scrutinises my decisions.
I was especially keen that since every council tax paying household had contributed more to keeping our part of the country safe, every community should see a tangible benefit. In addition to providing more detectives to ensure that more criminals face the consequences of their actions every one of the 27 neighbourhood policing teams would be joined by an additional neighbourhood beat manager.
I am pleased to say that these neighbourhood officers are now in place. Four are in Plymouth sectors, nine are in Cornwall, six across south Devon and eight across the Exeter, East and Mid Devon policing area.
The 85 additional officers supported by our communities in the 2019/20 makes up part of a total increase in budgeted officer numbers of 126 since I became Police and Crime Commissioner in 2016. The number of Police Community Support Officers has fallen in the same time, from 360 to 218, as part of a policy to support the recruitment of more regular officers, although the ranks have also been supported by the addition of eight Tri-Service Safety Officers in Cornwall and seven Community Responders in Devon.
The increase meant that the amount of the total force budget met by local taxpayers increased from 39% in 2018/19 to 41% in 2019/20. The council taxpayers in Devon and Cornwall have done their bit, now it is right that Central Government increases the amount it gives to our force area.
As I write this column I do not yet know what the provisional grant settlement for Devon and Cornwall Police will be, but I am determined that this year will not see a rise in precept of last year’s level.
Officer numbers are set to rise further due to the national uplift in police numbers. In Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly year one of a central government uplift the central Government is funding an additional 140 officers over 18 months as part of its three-year uplift. When combined with the officers already being funding by our communities this project should take the force to an historic high.
So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of you who contributed extra in your tax bills of 2019/20 to maintain Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly as one of the safest places to live and work in the country. It’s my job to ensure that money is spent prudently and every penny goes into tangible benefits for our communities.
In the next few weeks we’ll be setting the budget and the direction for the force for the year 2020/21, and finding out how much central government funding we will receive. To keep in touch with developments in this area and to hear about community safety initiatives in your area please sign up for my news alerts at devonandcornwallpcc.neighbourhoodalert.co.uk.