West Midlands Police has been forced into an ‘unprecedented and rapid change’ after having £126m cut from its budget. Chief Constable Chris Sims tells Birmingham Post Crime Correspondent Mark Cowan how the cuts have been achieved, what this means for policing in the region, and what the future holds.
The police force is undergoing radical change, but operational performance is unaffected... “We are continuing to get better,” says West Midlands Chief Constable Chris Sims.
He will know that is a bold statement, particularly in the face of mounting public and political fears over the fate of policing brought about by the budget cuts of £126 million imposed by the Government.
But Mr Sims is now predicting an exciting future for policing in the region with major projects designed to transform the way the force operates, revolutionising the service offered to the public.
He admitted “difficult decisions” have had to be made to plug the £126 million budget black hole caused by the four-year Comprehensive Spending Review but said the force had identified all of the cuts that needed to be made to meet the budget cuts while, at the same time, protecting the frontline.
While critics continue to argue over the depth of the cuts to policing nationwide amid claims that crime would inevitably rocket, Mr Sims lets the figures for West Midlands Police speak for themselves.
Latest figures showed that crime fell by more than nine per cent last year compared to the previous 12 months. Burglary was down by 18 per cent, robberies fell by 16 per cent while satisfaction levels in service has improved.
“I believe we have partly answered that question people ask of us about whether we can we take that amount of money out of the budget and continue to deliver good police, continue to protect the public and deliver good standards,” said Mr Sims.
Every one of the force’s departments have been put under the microscope and asked to strip out unnecessary costs and protect the frontline.
The first round of cuts, known as Priority Based Budgeting, helped slash £25 million and Mr Sims said a second round had found a further £17 million worth of savings.
According to the force’s strategic policing plan, more than two thirds of savings had come from back office functions, such as HR, estates and administration. Mr Sims said it meant “much leaner support arrangements” for the frontline.
While the savings have been found, it has not all been plain sailing. Early estimates of job losses fell short of the number believed required to balance the budget.
There have also been changes to police station opening hours and only last week it emerged that reductions in civilian workers have meant a small number of police officers had temporarily been pulled off the streets to help man the phones in call centres.
Mr Sims said: “I don’t think any of these saving are anything we would have necessarily envisaged. There are difficult choices in there that have not been simple.
“We have gone through a vigorous and rigorous review of every budget line and taken out everything that we can. In some critical areas we have fundamentally changed the way we work.
"We are at the end of that process, and we know pretty much where all of that £126 million gap is coming from and how it will be found.”
He added: “We are now in a position of being able to reassure people what the end of the four-year period will be like, and it is positive.”
Mr Sims said he could promise the public that neighbourhood policing, the bedrock of the force, was safe with officers continuing to be based at the heart of communities.
“There will be marginally fewer officers,” Mr Sims admitted.
“But that is more than made up for by the fact that we will no longer use neighbourhood officers for other duties. They will be remaining in neighbourhoods doing what they need to do.”
As the political fall-out into the depth of the cuts to British policing continued, most recently in Parliament last week, Mr Sims said the future of the force was bright.
He said West Midlands Police was embarking on major change programmes that were designed to boost the service to the public.
Even though policing was going through a period of cuts, he said they were growing critical parts of service such as offender management, tackling anti-social behaviour and policing gangs.
“We are trying to be more strategic about the way we operate," he said.
"Policing is more reactive than proactive – over the long-term we want staff to be more pre-emptive. We want to grab the problems as soon as we can to produce solutions rather than simply responding.”
Meanwhile, by Christmas, each of the region’s ten policing units will have undergone a transformation process known as Continuous Improvement to overhaul how police respond to demands from the public with fewer staff.
And Mr Sims predicted the new Business Partnering for Police programme would further improve the service to the public.
Among the early changes was the use of an appointment’s system.
He said: “It may sound trivial but it is really important. If people ring us and it is a non-emergency call or one judged not immediate, almost all of those calls are being dealt with by appointment.
“We are able to offer people a choice of when they would like to see us. It means they haven’t got to stand out in the freezing rain waiting for us to come or wait in the morning when they have got to go to work. We will come whenever is convenient.”
As well as offering a better service to the public, Mr Sims said it freed up response officers to focus entirely on emergency calls.
Further changes will come in the way phone calls to the force are handled with plans to reduce the number of contact centres from ten to two or three. But Mr Sims predicted bigger changes would come with the formation of a partnership with businesses and the access to new ideas and technology it would bring.
“It builds on this idea of giving customer choice. It is possible but difficult to report crime online, there is the possibility but it is not the norm to be updated by text,” said Mr Sims.
“It is about creating a platform to offer real choice. There are better ways of engaging with people and new systems will give us the ability to engage more fully.”
In the future, according to the force’s Strategic Plan, it is hoped that people will be able to follow the progress of their case online.
Mr Sims said the private sector would also be asked to develop mobile technology to allow police officers to continue operating on the streets independently “without having to return to the station”.
“In amongst what feels to the public like cut, cut, cut, there are areas where we are putting more resources into protecting the public better,” he said.
“We are thinking of our longer term future and about working with partners to make a difference and change the way we serve the public.”
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Future could see police officers based in shops and surgeries
West Midlands Police will look at all options in the long term including potentially closing stations and put officers in supermarkets and doctors surgeries instead.
In his comments in a series of reports produced for consideration at a meeting of the police authority this week, the Chief Constable warned that West Midlands Police, the nation’s second-largest force, could not justify its property empire of 146 separate sites at a time when the number of staff was being slashed by more than ten per cent.
He warned: “Over the next few years there will be reviews of our front office estate, in particular the locations and the opening times to ensure we have stations in the right places open when they are required.
‘‘We will also examine how the service can be transformed through other methods such as community volunteers, shared provision with other partners, use of technology in the community etc.”
The Chief Constable highlighted the results of a survey carried out as part of the public consultation over cuts to police station opening hours, saying: “Feedback shows people are more likely to go to locations such as doctors surgeries and supermarkets than police stations and that if the police were available in these locations we would be more accessible to them.”
In a separate report for the same meeting, Mr Sims said the size of the existing police estate could not be justified.
He warned: “By the end of 2011-12, the number of staff in the force will have reduced by around 13 per cent. We cannot ignore our duty to secure value for money from the estate.’’