Police and Crime Commissioners are letting light into policing. Photo: Getty
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If Labour scraps Police and Crime Commissioners, it will be rowing back on democracy

The Labour Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for Northumbria calls on Labour to retain PCCs, or a variant of the position, to allow transparency in policing.

Almost two years since the election of the first Police and Crime Commissioners, it’s a role that has continued to develop and evolve.

Labour has vowed to reform the system following Lord Stevens’ 2013 review of policing. However, there are currently 13 Labour commissioners, in office, with power and budgets, working to deliver services for the benefit of their communities, whose hands-on experience can inform policy development.

Commissioners are the elected voice of the people. Their duty is to consult communities to ascertain what they want from the police, shaping those priorities into a police and crime plan which gives strategic direction to the force. Our control of the local policing budget and our democratic leverage ensures that what the people want does happen. This represents a significant shift of power towards the public. Our "and crime" responsibilities empower us to coordinate local community safety work and elements of the criminal justice process. We will shortly be responsible for commissioning victims' services and we are developing local restorative solutions.

We have renewed focus on neighbourhood policing. These popular teams of police and community support officers, dedicated to serving a specific community, are the bedrock of modern policing, well defined as such by Lord Stevens. They work with the public and with partners to solve problems before they develop into crime or disorder, looking for longer term resolutions that help stability and community safety.

Neighbourhood policing has not only been overwhelmingly positive for communities, but it has helped to model a new kind of police officer. Remote from hierarchical management, they are directly accountable to the local communities with whom they work. They become committed to the public as well as to the police force and the trust they evoke contrasts with the distrust with which the national policing hierarchy is regarded for being too often steeped in their own sectional self-interest. The Hillsborough and Orgreave issues and contemporary concerns such as apparent inaccuracies around the deaths of Jean Charles de Menezes, Ian Tomlinson and Mark Duggan have done immeasurable damage to public trust. Now local police are, for the first time being overseen intrusively at command level by an elected figure and any tendency to put force self-interest over public well-being can be challenged, so that it becomes, at least more difficult for these kind of events to recur.

In the same vein, police complaints have often been dealt with through a prism of institutional defensiveness, which exacerbates grievances and loses the police friends as surely as national scandals do. Labour Commissioners are tackling this with the aim of getting police to admit minor bad behaviour where it has occurred and to trust the public to understand. In Northumbria, 36 per cent of police complaints are resolved within 48 hours by a customer focussed telephone team, based in the Commissioner’s office which has a 96 per cent satisfaction rate. Public involvement, emanating from an elected Commissioner, is breaking down barriers between the police and the communities they serve and restoring trust.

All of this is taking place amidst shrinking budgets and there are further challenges ahead. Police numbers are critically low. Last December saw extra reductions to police budgets to boost the Independent Police Complaints Commission without, so far, any transfer of work. Splitting the probation service to sell part of it off could undermine crime reduction by unsettling Integrated Offender Management. Harsh reductions in legal aid will mean fewer defence lawyers, perhaps heralding a matching return to police officer prosecutions.

In a time of upheaval as well as innovation, Labour Police and Crime Commissioners will continue to navigate pathways to improve policing in their local communities. Whether the role remains or a variant takes over, the current Labour Commissioners are letting light into policing and agree with Lord Stevens that the next Labour government should not row back on democracy.

Vera Baird is the Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria

Vera Baird QC MP is the Solicitor General
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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.