"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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.