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  1. Spotlight on Policy
27 February 2024

Why we need more neighbourhood policing

People are worried about crime and anti-social behaviour. Tackling these issues is essential to improving pride in place.

By Adam Hawksbee

There is a paradox in British policing. Crime is falling across the UK, with the number of offences (excluding online fraud) down by over three-quarters since the mid-1990s, but communities don’t feel safer. Over the last five years the number of people who say the crime rate in their local area is either the same or higher has stayed at around 80 per cent; in 2019, around three-quarters of the public felt the police were doing a “good job”, and today that number is around half.

The answer to this puzzle lies primarily in contrasting trends for the crimes most visible to communities: antisocial behaviour, burglary, theft and drug offences. These all contribute to and correlate with negative trends for local growth at the grassroots, with large employers, small businesses, traders and ordinary people as the primary victims. The proportion of the public saying they have experienced antisocial behaviour has increased by about a fifth in the last decade. The number saying drug use or dealing is a problem in their area has decreased only marginally, from 25 per cent to 21 per cent in the same period. Shoplifting has seen a recent high-profile spike, rising by almost a quarter in the year to April 2023. This is affecting not just the direct victims of the kind of “low-level” crime that has a high-level impact on millions of people, but is also influencing how communities see themselves, their desirability and pride in place. It is contributing to the decline of high streets and shared public spaces.

The evidence on the best way to tackle these crimes is clear: visible, trusted neighbourhood policing. Research has repeatedly shown that regular foot patrols targeted at crime hotspots can reduce offending and increase public confidence, particularly when paired with community-based prevention programmes. This tallies with voter preferences: 38 per cent of the public want “more police on the streets” compared to 31 per cent for “tougher sentences”.

Neighbourhood policing teams are currently strained. Despite the government’s successful drive to recruit 20,000 new officers, numbers in local teams are down. Between 2012 and 2023, the number of police community support officers (PCSOs) reduced by almost half, and the number of specials decreased by two-thirds. The areas with the most reduced neighbourhood teams are often the most deprived, such as Lancashire, Merseyside and Cleveland.

Within smaller pools of local police staff, chief constables are prioritising 999 responses over neighbourhood policing. While the number of officers assigned to response teams is roughly at 2012 levels, the number assigned to neighbourhood teams is 10 per cent lower. Officers are also often absented from neighbourhood teams to deal with national incidents, like protests or sporting events. The closure of police stations across the country adds to the feeling that the police are withdrawing from public spaces. Together, these trends have dramatically reduced police visibility: about 11 per cent of the public said they saw a foot patrol once a week in 2022, compared to 26 per cent in 2011.

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That’s why the think tank Onward is calling for a new wave of neighbourhood police recruitment to replenish local forces and rebuild confidence. The focus should be on the supporting roles that are most visible to the public, such as recruiting 10,000 PCSOs and 6,000 special constables alongside 3,000 new police officers.

This recruitment won’t come cheap. Labour has claimed it can recruit 13,000 new officers from within existing budgets, but  both underestimates the cost of new officers (ignoring training and recruitment costs) and overestimates potential efficiency savings. Instead, we should give local police and crime commissioners (PCCs) the tools they need to combat crime by scrapping the Whitehall-imposed cap on council tax precepts. For two new neighbourhood officers per ward, PCCs would have to raise their precept by just 45p per week.

Numbers alone won’t address the concerns of the public. Ministers also need to take a variety of steps to improve the visibility and effectiveness of local policing. Pop-up police stations should be opened in disused high street premises, providing both live desks and sites for officers to work remotely when answering non-emergency calls, facial recognition technology and joint teams with retail businesses should be rolled out to tackle shoplifting on high streets and a new wave of neighbourhood wardens should be recruited in town centres through the community safety accreditation scheme to tackle antisocial behaviour alongside local councils and community groups.

Ultimately, the public wants to know who their officers are, where they can meet them and what their priorities are. They want the reassurance of “bobbies on the beat”, named after Robert Peel, the architect of our modern model of policing by consent. Real progress has been made in recent decades on violent crime and the most serious offences, But to rebuild confidence, forces need to get back to basics.

To read the full report on neighbourhood policing, published by the centre-right think tank Onward click here

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