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Dismal turnout in the PCC elections must not mean an end to reform

These poorly organised elections should not obscure the need for greater devolution.

John Prescott arrives to hear the results of the Humberside police and crime commissioner elections. Photograph: Getty Images.

I have a confession to make.  I think directly elected police and crime commissioners (PCCs) are a positive step forward.

This is not a popular view to hold – particularly following yesterday’s dire turnout, and particularly from someone on the centre-left. However, I hold the view that in a democratic society the police need to be accountable to the public and that the old police authorities were neither visible nor legitimate enough to carry out that role.  

The fact that police authorities had little real legitimacy meant that power actually sat with the chief constables. These unelected professionals could decide which crimes their force ought to focus on, whether or not policing should be carried out by foot or in cars and the conditions under which the police could use firearms. For me, these are all big strategic decisions that should be determined democratically rather than by an unelected professional.  In reality of course as crime rose and police performance fell in the 1990s the Home Secretary started to take control of policing – setting targets and allocating ring fenced funding from the centre.  While this helped improve performance in the early days it soon led to rigidity and undermined responsiveness.  It is far better to have someone locally setting police priorities.

So, in principle, I am in favour of directly electing the people who hold the police to account in their local area.  I would have preferred this to be done either by local government at the level of the Basic Command Unit or by an elected Police Authority, but neither of these options was on the table.  If it’s a choice between the old unelected and invisible police authorities and the PCCs, then I am with the PCCs.  

The problem is that this democratic reform has been implemented in a totally cack-handed fashion. It was absurd to hold these contests to new and unfamiliar posts in November, with cold weather and early nights. They should have been held in May in tandem with the local elections, which would have ensured a more respectable turnout of 30-40 per cent in most places.

But the difficulty of engaging people in these elections does point to wider problems for those engaged in public service reform. Earlier this week, IPPR published a book on "the relational state", which argues for a shift away from public services being managed in a top down fashion from Whitehall and for services to be re-designed from the bottom up, with the users of services playing a more active role.  Should a turnout of below 15 per cent in the PCC elections force us to reconsider these arguments? 

I do not believe so: we want public services that are designed around their users, that are held to account locally and that are flexible enough to innovate and respond to local needs.  While government does need to set some clear national guarantees and minimum standards and to be able to step in when local services fail, in general it is better for priorities to be determined at the local level. But in a society where we are generally time poor and where we all struggle to balance work and family time, we clearly have to be realistic about people’s ability to participate in local civic life.  This means that expecting people to come to lots more meetings to hold their local services to account is a non-starter. 

While people have little interest in governance, they do often want to play a greater role on the issues that directly affect them. We should look at how care users can be given powers to design their own care, how parents can get more involved in their child’s learning and how local residents can come together to tackle anti-social behaviour on their estates.  In other words if we want to inject more participative energy into public services this is more likely to work if it is about meeting people, rather than attending more meetings.

We do nevertheless need to have democratically accountable forms of governance in local services: decisions need to be made in a way that is legitimate and accords to the general will of the local population. So what do we do with a problem like the police and crime commissioners?  We should not abandon the posts in haste.  Let this reform breathe for a while and let’s see what PCCs are able to achieve in their areas.  Despite the low turnout, there are some talented new PCCs now in place who hold out the prospect of doing innovative things to make their communities safer.

In the longer term, the low turnout will be addressed by holding these elections in tandem with the local elections in 2016. But we also need to consider the role of PCCs in the context of a wider debate about localism and how England is governed. While we have had successful devolution in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, most decisions in England are still made in the centre. 

There are a number of avenues we could explore. One would be to see whether in some city regional areas the powers of the PCC could be given to city regional ‘metro mayors’, as advocated by IPPR North.  We would then start to develop powerful new form of locally accountable government in our cities, with powers over transport, economic development and policing, as with the mayor of London.  Another would be whether in some areas smaller police forces, based around current Basic Command Units, might be more appropriate, held to account directly by local government. In other areas PCCs would remain. Given the complexity of how England is governed, there does not have to be the same solution in every area.

Whatever the immediate fallout from these poorly organised elections, we should not let these problems lead to a return to excessive centralism.