‘Unsustainable’ cuts to police in Lancashire have seen officer numbers slashed in recent years – and one of the force’s most senior officers today warned the force is close to breaking point.
Since its peak in 2009, the number of police officers in the county has fallen by nearly 700 and a senior officer has said future Government cuts will now hit the front line.
The force was praised in a recent report for its approach to making savings of £54m between 2011 and 2015, but Deputy Chief Cons Andy Rhodes said the worst was still to come.
He told The Gazette: “We have cut a lot of fat off the bone but the next bit isn’t really fat – it’s cutting into areas the public have got used to.
“Numbers do matter. There is a certain number of police officers you need to do what you need to do and that level is fast approaching.”
Police officer numbers in Lancashire swelled to 3,753 in 2009 but latest official figures show the number now stands at 3,074 – 731 of them in western division, which covers Blackpool – with a further 51 jobs forecast to go by March.
And neighbourhood policing – teams of officers tackling local issues, for which the force has been widely praised in recent years – is among the services that will be hit as the force looks to shave a further £20m from the budget.
Bosses insisted each area of the county would still be covered and said the public would be involved in the decision-making process.
But with vital services including responding to 999 calls, counter-terrorism and child protection spared from the worst of the cuts, senior officers are now looking at using technology – including hosting online PACT meetings – to fill the gaps as neighbourhood police are spread more thinly.
Deputy Chief Cons Rhodes added: “The public haven’t seen much of the fact we have cut £60m and 1,270 (police and civilian staff) posts. But they are going to start seeing where we are going next.
“We are always going to have to do the scary stuff – we will maintain those services come what may. What we are in danger of cutting into is the family silver, which is neighbourhood policing.”
He said the force gets 75 per cent of its funding from Home Office grants, which are being heavily reduced, meaning it is being hit harder than other areas where the grants form a smaller portion of the budget.
Despite the additional challenges, Lancashire Police was one of only five forces to be rated as “outstanding” for its response to the cuts in a recent report carried out by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary.
Deputy Chief Cons Rhodes added: “We are not happy with the numbers we are losing but that report shows we have done a decent job of keeping things on an even keel.
“But it’s a fact of life things are going to change in Lancashire and it’s bound to affect the areas the public know and love.”
Dave Blacker, chairman of the Talbot ward PACT group, said he was concerned further cuts could mean the end of pro-active neighbourhood policing – and a rise in crime.
“You need officers on the ground to support neighbourhood policing and to build relationships with people in local communities,” he said.
“I worry that those areas which have been most successful in preventing crime could end up losing officers. It then becomes a Catch 22 situation because crime could then increase in those areas.”
A spokesman for campaign group Blackpool Against The Cuts said: “The Tories bang on about being the party of law and order yet they are making the biggest cuts to the police force in modern history.
“There is no doubt it is impacting upon frontline policing and we are already seeing increases in some categories of crime.”
Anna Stefani, owner of The Ferry Cafe in Fleetwood, which was last month targeted for a fourth time by charity collection box thieves, said: “I definitely see fewer officers walking along the promenade now than I did six or seven years ago and I think that must be due to the reduced numbers.
“If there were more it would be more of a deterrent and they would help to prevent crime happening.”
Latest crime figures released earlier this year and covering the period from October 2012 - September 2013 revealed that while overall crime continues to fall, some offences, such as sex offences, robbery and violence against the person, increased.
Police bosses are now looking at working more closely with other organisations, including councils, to share the burden.
Deputy Chief Cons Rhodes said: “The days of walking round doing nothing but being visible are gone.
“In areas like Blackpool, where we have got significant issues around vulnerability, what we are looking at is evolving neighbourhood policing into a true partnership model on the front line.
“The public aren’t really bothered which public services sort this out as long as it gets sorted out.
“That is something that can still be visible.”
He also highlighted the changing ways people are interacting with the police, pointing to the popularity of its Facebook pages, and said the force needs to “move with the times”.
“We are investing heavily in online services so people can report crimes online,” he added.
“We want to talk to the public about which services they would prefer to do in that way and which can be done face to face. It is moving into an area that is very popular with the public and it’s visible.”
‘Reductions need halting’
Lancashire’s Police and Crime Commissioner Clive Grunshaw blamed an “uneven playing field” – with cuts affecting some areas more than others – for officer numbers shrinking in Lancashire at a time neighbouring forces in Merseyside and Cumbria are recruiting.
He said : “We have still got to identify further cuts, which will mean we will lose more officers and police staff, but we are doing the best we can to make sure we deliver services the people of Lancashire expect.
“The number one priority is the protection of neighbourhood policing and we are having a look at different ways of doing that.”
He repeated calls for a halt to Home Office budget cuts, while forces come to terms with the drastic changes they have been forced to make in recent years. He added: “We have got real concerns about what the future holds beyond the £20m we have to find now.”
The changes so far...
Lancashire Police has had to slash its budget by £54.3m between March 2011 and March 2015. Savings of £37.6m have already been made and a further £16.7m has been identified for this year, with a further £5.6m planned in 2014/15. Since March 2010, the force has lost 957 staff, a 16 per cent reduction made up of 629 police officers, 238 police staff and 93 PCSOs. The cuts have also prompted a major restructuring of the force, which has seen the number of police divisions reduced from six to three. The move has seen specialist units that were centrally governed - such as roads policing and armed response units - moved back into divisions in order to reduce management costs. And throughout the cost cutting, several police stations across the county have either been sold off or closed to the public.
Neighbourhood policing set to be next in firing line
Neighbourhood policing looks set to be the main casualty when future budget cuts hit. Introduced 12 years ago, the system ensures every area of Lancashire is covered by local police officers. Every neighbourhood in the county has its own policing team aimed at increasing visibility in the community and improving communication with the public. Police and Communities Together (PACT) meetings are used to give residents a chance to talk to their local officers and influence policing priorities in their area. While Lancashire Police has insisted it is committed to protecting neighbourhood policing, which is popular with residents, the system looks set to change. Increased use of online technology, offering ways to communicate with neighbourhood policing teams that take up less officer time, is among the changes being looked at.