"Politicians have sought to put more and more duties onto police officers." Photograph: Getty Images.
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The role of the police has become too broad

In an age of austerity, officers need to stop taking responsibility for social problems that can be better dealt with by others. 

Like their counterparts across local government, and those other parts of the public sector not lucky enough to be protected by "ring-fences", the police have had to face up to dramatic and unprecedented cuts to their budgets since 2010. How they have chosen to respond to this challenge has fallen largely to newly-elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). The choices they have made are already beginning to transform the policing landscape in profound and sometimes unexpected ways.

The exception is London, where PCC powers are delegated in law to the unelected deputy mayor Stephen Greenhalgh. Yet the capital faces the same hard choices as the rest of the country – Boris Johnson has ordered the Met to find £500m in savings by 2016 – and Greenhalgh has set about this task with vigour, implementing a "20-20-20 Challenge": to cut key neighbourhood crimes by 20 per cent, boost confidence by 20 per cent, and cut costs by 20 per cent.

But the deputy mayor’s ambitions do not end there. In a new report out today from the think-tank Reform, Greenhalgh and co-author Blair Gibbs call for a fundamental re-think of the whole policing function. They argue that the role of the police in recent decades has become too broad: that politicians have sought to put more and more duties onto police officers, and that the can-do culture of the police themselves has led senior officers to take on responsibility for social problems better dealt with by others. They call on PCCs to take hard decisions about what activities might be stopped outright (such as responding to abusive behaviour online) and where other agencies must start to play a larger role (such as dealing with the complex needs of mental health patients).

Of course, for many years, the easiest way to dodge these sorts of hard decisions was to increase the precept that the police can place on council taxpayers. In the last two years  of the Brown administration alone, the government was forced to take capping action on twelve separate occasions against police authorities seeking to increase their precepts, in one case by a staggering 79 per cent.  These sorts of excesses have ended with Eric Pickles's introduction of council tax referendums. Yet many PCCs are once again looking to pass on costs to local ratepayers, in the hope that the extra revenue will see them through. Greenhalgh and Gibbs have little time for this, arguing that "raising the precept by the maximum permitted amount without triggering a referendum is no substitute for a radical reshaping of the service to prevent crime and tackle rising demand."

But what right does the deputy mayor have to lecture his democratically-elected colleagues? After all, this is the man who has overseen the wholesale closure of police stations across the capital and who now wants to introduce water canon as a public order tool.  Reform commissioned an opinion poll from Populus to coincide with the publication of today’s report. Strikingly, what it found was that the public does not think that policing has deteriorated since 2010: nationally, around half of respondents said performance had stayed the same with the proportion saying it had improved equal to the proportion saying things had got worse. Yet the standout difference was the capital. Despite the terrible riots of 2011, the survey found Londoners were much more likely to say the Met’s performance had improved (29 per cent), with 40 per cent saying it had stayed the same and just 10 per cent saying it had worsened.

Not all will agree with Greenhalgh and Gibbs's diagnosis, and some will say their medicine is too harsh. Yet there is no denying that the deputy mayor has shown that it is possible to deliver radical reform while holding council tax down and keeping the public on side.  With future austerity an absolute certainty, PCCs across the country should pay close attention to the arguments in this report.

Richard Harries is the deputy director of Reform

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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.