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Police and Crime Commissioners have significant powers - pay attention to them

The first PCC elections in November 2012 attracted the lowest national turnout in British electoral history.

Next month voters in England and Wales will go to the polls to elect Police and Crime Commissioners. The first PCC elections, which took place in November 2012, are notable for attracting the lowest national turnout in British electoral history with only around 15% of voters going to the polls. As a result the previous PCC elections represented extraordinarily poor value for money.

The 2012 PCC election cost around £75m to run yet only around 5 million people turned out to vote. This represents a spend of around £15 for every vote cast. In terms of spend per vote the election of PCCs in 2012 was more costly than the re-election of US President Barack Obama which took place earlier the same month.

Police and Crime Commissioners are powerful individuals with extensive powers to set policing priorities, allocate resources and appoint Chief Constables. However, the low turnout meant that most were elected with the support of less than 7% of eligible voters, which naturally raised concerns about the legitimacy of those wielding these powers.

Eyebrows were also raised by the large salary and allowance packages available to PCCs. The £65k a year PCC salary is markedly higher than the £10k basic annual allowance for the police authority members they replaced. Although when one considers that most police authorities comprised around fifteen members and that many of those were eligible for additional allowances on top of their basic salary the generous salary of one individual does look like better value.

However, many Police and Crime Commissioners have also appointed deputy commissioners and managerial teams - also on generous salaries. The replacement of a number of modestly-paid police authority members with a single highly-paid individual and a team of well-paid advisors begins to look like less good value for money.

Moreover, while all PCCs were directly-elected, albeit on a low turnout, their deputies and managerial teams were all appointed and as such are somewhat less accountable to the public than the local councillors who sat on the police authorities they replaced.

One reason why so many of the new PCCs appointed advisory and support teams was that many of them had little experience of policing prior to taking on the role. While most PCCs are without doubt well-meaning public spirited individuals who want to make a difference to policing in their local area, a strong public service ethic or even extensive experience in other fields does not necessarily qualify one to set priorities for public safety and security or to handle million pound budgets. Of course the police authorities they replaced were not comprised of law-enforcement professionals but they did include local councillors often with many years’ experience of handling local authority budgets and all included lay members who were magistrates and therefore had some experience of the law.

In most cases the main qualification for election as a PCC appears to be political affiliation. Only a quarter of PCCs elected in 2012 were independent and the majority of candidates for this year’s election are standing as representatives of a political party. However, unlike for example MPs or local councillors, PCCs are required to carry out their job with impartiality. It is somewhat odd therefore that voters are being encouraged to vote for candidates on the basis of their political affiliation rather than their capacity to do the job. In the case of Police and Crime Commissioners one might argue that political affiliation should be a disqualification rather than a qualification for the post.

The most significant power allocated to PCCs, which had not been exercised by police authorities, is the power to appoint Chief Constables. Once again the record here has been mixed. Several PCCs have had fractious relationships with their Chief Constables and there have been a number of well-publicised fallouts between the individuals holding these prominent positions. The impact of such breakdowns on morale in the wider police force is also a cause for concern. A recent parliamentary select committee inquiry found that, as a result of the introduction of PCCs, police forces were finding it increasingly difficult to find candidates willing to take on the post of Chief Constable.

Whatever the flaws, the creation of Police and Crime Commissioners has drawn attention to a role which in the past was largely exercised without considerable public oversight or debate. While most PCCs are not perhaps household names, they have provided a focus for media and therefore public attention. Moreover, the high profile coverage of some of the problems associated with the role is perhaps an indication of an increase in accountability, and may therefore be seen as a good thing. The fact that PCC elections are this year being run alongside local elections will inevitably mean an increase in turnout. It is to be hoped that the next batch of Police and Crime Commissioners repay the voters’ confidence.

Dr Andrew Defty is Reader in Politics at the University of Lincoln. He tweets @adefty

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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.