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.

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.

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

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation

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The wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.