My zero tolerance for these politicised police chiefs

They have forgotten their most important directive: they police with our consent.

It's always ironic to misuse the word "ironic", and I may be about to do so. But isn't there something ironic in the sight of police "leaders" decrying the Tory insight (that what we partly need is some citizen-directed political control over policing priorities, via elected commissioners), by taking to the airwaves and the blogosphere to indulge in, ah, politics? The officers' officer corp has been anything but apolitical since last Monday.

The inverted commas around "leaders" is at least partially deserved, I think. Last Monday, the police held back and didn't use force to quell the rioters. On Tuesday, they behaved like a police force again, and within 36 hours the riots were extinguished. When the PM made this point -- I don't claim its undeniable truth, but he spoke for many of us in the boroughs affected -- he didn't receive an apology or explanation from the acting Met commissioner Tim Godwin; instead, he received political abuse.

Supporting the use of sufficient force in the face of violent looting, as an aside, does not equate to a requirement to turn a blind eye to outrages such as the assault on Ian Tomlinson, as the Mayor of London appeared to hint in his Telegraph article on Monday.

It's not hard, in my mind at least, to differentiate between the two, and I was disappointed at the normally eloquent Boris' apparent conflation of them.

It shouldn't require saying that criticism of police leaders does not imply criticism of rank-and-file officers (my brother-in-law is a serving officer), but equally, honest appreciation of the calibre of men such as he does not translate into a blank Tory cheque for whatever words issue from Sir Hugh Orde, head of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), who also saw fit to attack the Prime Minister, as well as taking the opportunity to insert a stiletto into the candidacy of the American Bill Bratton, putative applicant for Met Commissioner. What is ACPO for? What use is it? Sir Hugh had a distinguished career. It's a shame to tarnish it through association with this top cops' trade union.

The PM touched on an important point in his impressive speech yesterday, about the need for cultural, as well as legislative and operational, changes. The Lib Dems may be substantively irrelevant to any discussion about, well, certainly this topic. ("Oh let's not be knee-jerk," wails Simon Hughes. Sometimes, Simon, a jerk of the knee is exactly the right response to a threat). Unfortunately we require them for our anti-Labour majority in parliament. The question I suspect I'm not the only Tory to ponder, however, is: even if we weren't bound up with the Liberals, and could remove the Human Rights Act from the statute book, would much change?

Or have both the attitudes, and the litigious culture it has engendered, made concrete the cultural reflexes of the leaders of our institutions, those reflexes which Tories abhor?

I worry about the answer to that when the police have spokesmen like this superintendent, who spoke thus over Twitter:

Political talk of 'Zero tolerance policing' is a bit like wearing flares, comes in to fashion once every 20 years, then gets forgotten about.

If my Tory fear is right, then it underlines the need to reconnect police leaders with the public they serve, via elected Commissioners. I doubt the superintendent I quoted would forget about zero-tolerance, were his boss directly elected by people who demanded it. (He's probably an excellent officer, and it's unfair to lift one tweet from his timeline without also recording that the many others suggest a dedicated man. But he should not be twittering such political opposition to the will of the Prime Minister).

In London the situation is murkier than elsewhere, since both the Mayor (for whom we vote) and the Home Secretary (for whom we do not) have some weird joint accountability for the leader of the Met. Accountability, like a problem, is halved when it is shared. Take the counter-terrorism duty from the Met and place it directly under the aegis of the Home Office, and thus parliament. Give the Mayor clear accountability to Londoners for what happens on our streets.

And what of Sir Hugh, with his elegant put-down of an American? Is it impossible to imagine the Met having any better leadership than that which it's enjoyed the last ten years or so?

We've had Brian Paddick declare his fondness for anarchy, preside over a disastrous experiment with drugs policing in Lambeth, then give up on his police career in order to cavort in a jungle and run as a joke candidate for mayor. We've watched several of the recent top officers being humiliated in the Commons over their approach to phone-hacking.

We had a Commissioner who was in place for a ridiculously short space of time, before (needlessly, in my opinion) resigning over some trivia about post-operative recuperation. The woman who was in direct command the day that Jean Charles de Menezes was executed (sorry: not an execution; the Met were eventually prosecuted under Health and Safety laws) has been rewarded with control of the specialist crime division.

And who could forget Ian Blair, Tony's special little enforcer -- the trail-blazer, in many ways, of this politicised pack -- ever eager to make the dubious case that what the Met really needed was the ability to lock us all up, without charge, for months. These are recent Met leaders who spring to mind. Is Sir Hugh so sure that no outsider could improve upon them? Or that, by extension, we shouldn't be directly involved in setting their priorities?

Whether Mr Bratton is the answer or not isn't quite my point (though I think he may well be a good answer). The leadership of the police may have forgotten their most important directive: that they police with our consent. Our consent: not that of the barristers at the Matrix chambers. Consent, in the UK, is best expressed through the medium of election; however unsatisfactory that may seem to ACPO.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.