On 6 May 2021, voters in the West Midlands will have their say on who represents them at Local council level; who will be the Mayor of the West Midlands and who will become the new Police and Crime Commissioner. In our series of election specials, we hear from the candidates who want your votes.
West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner election
Thursday 6th May 2021
An article from Councillor Jon Hunt – the Liberal Democrat candidate
The role of the Police and Crime Commissioner has failed as an institution and no more so than in the West Midlands. That is not a statement that demands a return to the past but a proposal that the region takes the opportunities now in front of it to do policing – and oversight of policing – better and to embed it in our communities.
There are two big examples, within the region of how public oversight of the police has failed. One is the removal of speed cameras some years ago and their very slow replacement with digital average speed cameras, which are highly effective.
The second example is the programme of closure of police stations, which typifies the way that frontline community policy has been downgraded by West Midlands Police.
It was the loss of our local police station together with the collapse of the neighbourhood policing introduced very successfully at the beginning of the century which made me consider standing for the role of police and crime commissioner. All of a sudden our local police team were commuting half way across the city and back again on a daily basis, cutting at least an hour from their time in the community daily.
I don’t propose to do the job a little better than my predecessors, I propose to do it differently, as has been my approach in nearly 20 years as a fairly prominent councillor in Birmingham.
The commissioner’s role is both quite limited and very wide-ranging, one of the reasons, perhaps, it has been a failure. The commissioner sets a budget for the police, agrees a precept and holds the chief constable to account for meeting the targets in an annual plan. The commissioner can also take an interest in any aspect of criminal justice in the region and dispense quite large sums of money in grants.
When I use the word failure, I don’t want to denigrate the efforts of the postholders who have sponsored a number of worthy projects. But there has often been confusion about the role in terms of public commenting and accountability during major incidents and police investigations. Issues such as speed cameras and police stations – which are investment decisions – become matters of policing operational decision.
My party’s policy is to abolish the role and revert to something like the former police authority. My policy, which has been criticised by some in my party, is to make the role a directly elected deputy mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority.
Making the post a deputy mayor is not a new idea and was bitterly opposed in this region by the existing commissioner. In Manchester and London, the deputy mayor is appointed by the Mayor. It appears to have been a failure in Manchester where the chief constable has been forced to resign.
Electing the deputy mayor is a new idea and would, in my view, retain the benefits of having the directly elected commissioner whilst getting rid of the office holder’s detachment from the rest of the system of public accountability in the region.
There would also be the potential for significant financial savings. The commissioner’s office costs more than £2 million a year and includes a “strategic board”, which has included some highly controversial political appointments. The role itself is paid at the same level as the Mayor – when it could be half that. I have not been able to find any other region which has run its business through a strategic board in the same way.
To take one example: the PCC appoints the chief constable. Under my proposal applicants would face a heavyweight panel, chaired by the deputy mayor but very likely including the Mayor and several council leaders from around the region.
The second part of my manifesto is a radical rethink of community policing. The idea is almost interchangeable with neighbourhood policing but perhaps includes some wider ideas.
When the police authority went, so did all the lessons learnt in several decades of urban turmoil and switchbacking policing policy. Area consultative committees were embedded by the Scarman Inquiry, following disorder in Birmingham, and were routinely attended by community representatives, local councillors and the case of those I attended, the chair of the police authority, holding similar status to the PCC but with considerably less remuneration.
Prior to that, last century, Liberals such as Supt David Webb in Handsworth had pioneered engagement in urban communities by the police. Webb later stood as a Lib Dem candidate and wrote a book Policing the Rainbow, which was privately published but should be on the desk of anyone concerned about good policing.
In our region there are multiple challenges caused by organised crime and pockets of deprivation that allow young people to be sucked into gangs and organised crime. The impact of organised crime is seen in the gangs that terrorise the inner city and the systematic theft, often with violence, of expensive vehicles throughout the region.
Parallel to this has been the failure to create a police force that reflects the diversity of the region. Following last year’s Black Lives Matters protests, efforts are under way to redress this – but a deep dive into policing statistics shows the impact. Poor recruitment from BAME groups and police officers tasering suspects simply because their appearance is threatening.
All parties in the 2019 election promised large increases in police numbers and the Conservatives have had the privilege of delivering on the promise. However, delivery is so focused on numbers of officers with warrants that it misses the opportunity to change the mix of local police teams. The number of police community support officers is to stay stuck at little more than 400.
Good community policing is essential in both our inner cities and in our suburbs. It means uniformed officers engaging with youth clubs, schools and community groups and organising volunteers in activities such as Speedwatch and Streetwatch (two activities West Midlands Police was trying to get going prior to the pandemic, under the supervision of PCSOs.) In its absence there is poor recruitment from these communities and young people alienated by constant crackdowns are easy meat for gang recruiters.
My third radical idea is to develop the role of PCSOs. This is not in the gift of the commissioner so would be a matter for discussion. Currently they are primarily task-driven, responding to calls assigned centrally by the struggling 101 phone service. They need autonomy to undertake community activity and that may require creating new grades for team leaders. The present settlement in effect restricts their numbers.
Finally, there is investment and police stations. It was the former police authority that was responsible for divesting from speed cameras and failing to invest in modern digital alternatives – even though safety awareness courses were a lucrative source of income for the police. Police station closures have happened under the watch of the PCCs. It is understandable that large and underused buildings were a target for closure and sale – but there was never any plan to replace the police presence in the community.
The present PCC is now offering space in stations for civil servants. It is a start. But we are a long behind other areas that have managed to establish police shopfronts in communities, often sharing with other public services. Why not build a secure police room behind a public library for instance?
It was never right to leave this to the Chief Constable. It is the police and crime commissioner (or elected deputy mayor for policing) who should be developing imaginative ideas to keep the police in our communities, to involve the public in their own safety and to work with other public services to make it happen.
About Councillor Jon Hunt
Councillor Jon Hunt is the Liberal Democrat candidate for West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner.
Jon currently leads the Liberal Democrat group on Birmingham City Council and was formerly vice-chair of the West Midlands Integrated Transport Authority. In his previous life he was a journalist on the Birmingham Post and the Express and Star.
Connect with Jon on Twitter
About the role of Police and Crime Commissioners
“The role of a Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) is to be the voice of the people in policing, and to hold the Chief Constable to account for how he/she discharges their functions. The aim of all PCCs is to ensure the delivery of an effective and efficient police service within their force area”
Police and crime commissioners (PCCs) are elected representatives with responsibility for policing in each police area in England and Wales. Each police area (except for Greater London and Greater Manchester, where the elected mayor is responsible) elects a commissioner every four years.
PCCs are responsible for:
- Setting the Police budget
- Deciding what the Police’s priorities should be
- Appointing the Chief Constable, who is responsible for making operational decisions, and holding them to account
- Providing strategic oversight to the Chief Constable’s decisions
- Helping to improve the criminal justice system to support victims and reduce re-offending
- Working with other local organisations (e.g. local councils) to provide a joint approach to reduce crime
- Work closely with other local emergency services
- Act as a bridge between the public and the Police Service
- Ensure the Police service is working efficiently and effectively
- Making their community a safer place
Further information on the candidates for the role of Police and Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands can be found by visiting the BBC election pages