Birmingham’s crimefighting chief has signalled a major move away from local police stations, concentrating instead on officers placed in the community.
West Midlands police and crime commissioner Bob Jones said his priority amid large funding cuts was keeping officers on the beat.
In a bold online blog, Mr Jones states: “Buildings don’t catch criminals – that’s what police officers do.”
Last month the Birmingham Post revealed that every police station in the region was under review.
Now Mr Jones has unveiled a clear strategy to move away from neighbourhood stations – instead embedding officers in shared offices, possibly owned by councils.
He highlighted how the West Midlands had lost £126 million in the last four years. The force has already shed around 2,200 jobs.
West Midlands police currently spends about 85 per cent of its budget on officers and staff, with the rest spent on infrastructure including buildings.
In the 12 months to March overall crime in the region has fallen by 11 per cent compared to the previous 12-month period with reductions in business crime, burglary and robbery.
But there are serious concerns that further cuts to the crime-fighting budget could see rates start to spiral again. Mr Jones revealed that since the last figures were released there has been a small rise in crime.
The commissioner said he was faced with a simple dilemma between spending money on bricks and mortar or frontline officers.
He said: “Managing cuts on this scale poses a particular challenge because policing is all about people. Eighty-five per cent of the budget goes on pay and benefits for officers and staff.
“Falling numbers of police officers and staff, as I’ve said before, create the risk of a new ‘tipping point’, where crime starts to rise after two decades of decline.
“We must do everything to stop this happening, but the pressure is real, and we’re feeling it now. Since March 2013, we’ve seen a small increase in crime, just 0.6 per cent over what we saw last year. The downward trend might resume, but it might not.
“If we are to stop crime rising, then officers on the streets, with effective and appropriate support from police staff, will be key. A key priority is to maximise the number of officers on the streets, preventing crime and catching criminals.
“So if 85 per cent of my budget goes on officers and staff, then I must focus on that other 15 per cent – the part of the budget that goes on things other than people.”
The commissioner said he understood that the role of buildings was vital in allowing communities to feel like there was a genuine presence of officers.
But he added: “However, no police station ever caught a criminal. An office in a police base can’t prevent a crime. Only police officers, and the staff who support them, can do these things.”
In Birmingham there are plans to centralise as many services as possible to the force headquarters at Lloyd House in the city centre, doubling the number of people who work there. This will enable the force to close a number of its city centre facilities, which it claims will enable savings equivalent to keeping 75 officers on the streets.
Mr Jones said: “At the most basic level, with fewer officers and staff, less office space is required. With the need for larger, safer and more cost effective custody blocks, existing stations, with custody blocks that are no longer required attached, don’t make any sense any more.
“This doesn’t mean the police are retreating from our communities. In fact, it can mean the opposite – officers and staff becoming embedded in shared, centrally located buildings that save money and promote joint working.”
Last month plans were scrapped for a new £14 million police station in Walsall town centre – ending a decade of planning and searching for a new location, and leaving the council disappointed. It was described as a “downgrading” of police operations in the town by Walsall Council leader Mike Bird.
Instead, the force is now negotiating with the council to move a neighbourhood team into council offices.
Mr Jones said: “This means we don’t need to spend £14 million on a new station and will allow us to close the existing station – saving another half million pounds a year.
“We will pay some of this to the council for the space, making their building more sustainable, and other officers and staff from the station will redeploy to other police stations and buildings, meaning that they are fuller and more sustainable, too. Custody facilities will be provided in new, larger facilities that are more efficient and safer.”
Mr Jones claimed the scheme will actually provide a ‘better service’ for local people, and said: “When they visit the shared offices it will be easier for them to get their issue dealt with right away.
“Rather than the police or the council picking up each other’s business, or signposting people to other agencies, it will be possible to get the right response, right away. We’ve seen this working in Chelmsley Wood (where the local team is based in the Bluebell Centre), and it can work in Walsall too.
“This approach is a win-win, and as the estates strategy progresses, I will be exploring other opportunities.
“I have to ensure that West Midlands Police is as efficient as possible, providing as good a service as possible, and doing everything it can with the resources it has to prevent crime and catch criminals. Buildings don’t catch criminals – that’s what police officers do. With money tight, I know where I’m going to invest.”