West Midlands Police have been told to make significant cost savings while still providing the same level of service to the public.
It’s a story that will be familiar to many people in organisations across the public and private sector.
Many of us are having to “do more with less”, as the saying goes. But it’s a lot easier to say than it is to do.
In the case of West Midlands Police, the people ordering spending cuts are at Westminster. The person who has to figure out a response is Chris Sims, the Chief Constable.
Whether or not the Government really needs to cut spending, or to cut it as far and as fast as it has, is a matter of hot debate. We’re not attempting to answer that question here, but we do want to note that it’s not a question that can be asked about Mr Sims. He really does have no choice but to live within the budget given to him.
So there can be no criticism of him for implementing spending cuts. Like the heads of many organisations, he no doubt would like to have more money to play with than he does, but he needs to live within his means.
One thing that really stands out in the reports submitted by Mr Sims to West Midlands Police Authority is the fact that the full impact of spending cuts has not yet been felt.
Police staffing numbers have been cut, and that process continues. Opening hours at some police stations have also been cut, effectively offsetting the impact of staff cuts by allowing police to leave the front desk and carry out other duties instead.
But in the longer term, Mr Sims is considering more radical changes to the police estate, including losing buildings and making police officers available in places like supermarkets and doctors’ surgeries rather than police stations. It might be tempting to mock the idea or condemn it out of hand. But two points need to be made.
First, from his account, it does appear that the police estate –the properties owned by West Midlands Police – has become a little bloated.
Secondly, valuable as police stations are, most of us rarely go in one. Making officers available for the public to talk to at a place that we all visit often, such as a supermarket, might well make them more visible and approachable than they are now.
Of course, no decisions have been made at this stage. Mr Sims makes it clear that there will be no further changes to front offices, where members of the public can speak directly to officers, until the end of the 2012-13 financial year. But this appears to suggest that changes could be made after April 2013, when the next financial year begins.
And the reason he is looking ahead? The force has been told to cut funding by £126 million by 2014/15, but Mr Sims warns that he expects to have to implement even more budget cuts after that.
It would be nice if he was wrong but he’s probably not. There will be a general election in 2015, at the latest, but whoever forms the next government is likely to be forced to impose more cuts.
This is a difficult time for police forces. They also face upheavel in the way they are managed, with the election in November of police commissioners.
Whoever wins in the West Midlands (just like in other parts of the country) is going to have to work with their chief constable to implement some very difficult decisions. We can only hope they’ll be up to the task.