Monday, 5 February 2007

Privatised policing

Villagers in Dedham, Essex, are so fed up with vandalism and anti-social behaviour that they have decided to pay for their own policing.

At a cost of £15 per year per household (which the County Council adds to the precept, the Parish Council’s discretionary taxation appended to the Council Tax), the Parish Council will fund a Police Community Support Officer dedicated to the village.

Dedham is a picturesque Essex village

The privatisation of policing tends to cause a visceral fear in most liberals. The state’s monopoly on coercion and violence are rightly viewed as essential safeguards against the brutal anarchy that would ensue if private armies were allowed to proliferate. Yet on the other hand, hiring a bodyguard or security guard is only a natural extension of the individual’s right to self-defence.

This example is actually a half-way house, with the PCSO remaining an officer of the state, but financed and thus deployed by the local community. This is closer to Britain’s policing heritage than our current system; over the past 30 years successive Home Secretaries have extended centralised control over what were a plethora of local police services, developed from local watch committees. This centralisation has not been entirely positive.

Dedham is famous for Constable

Local policing needs to be rooted much more firmly in the community than is currently the case: at present there are Safer Neighbourhoods panels, and local commanders meet with councillors, but we have a far more centralised approach to policing than is common in Europe or America. Rather than having a local constabulary and a national gendarmerie, our police fall between two stools. As a result, they have lost that greatest of all British traditions, the local bobby on the beat who knew his local area, chatted to the residents and deterred crime. The new Safer Neighbourhoods initiative is an attempt to return to community policing, but local elected officials should be given much more control over local policing than is currently the case.

This particular story does raise an issue of equality, however. While I can see no reason why a community should not be allowed to volunteer to pay for extra security, and while it may make sense for that security to be an officer of the state, I am concerned by the report on today’s Times (a column inch of which explains my unerring knowledge of the workings of Dedham Parish Council) that the Parish will only pay half of the costs of the PCSO, with Essex County Council or Essex police presumably picking up the rest of the bill. This raises the spectre of public resources being allocated to where communities are rich enough to bear part of the costs, but are unwilling to bear all. This is in effect a subsidy to the wealthier sectors of society, who can afford to vote for a £15 a year rise in their Council Tax, diverting resources away from poorer areas where money is tighter. What is more, it allocates resources based not on need, but on ability to pay: as Dedham Councillor Lyn West noted, ‘the village would [not] get "value for money" in view of the low level of crime in Dedham’.
There is clearly a middle ground in this issue, whereby communities would have more control over policing and would be able to buy in more if they chose, while poor areas did not subsidise the security of richer neighbours. This is to give more power over policing to local communities, allow them to vote for the amount of investment in policing to be derived from their own taxes, but not subsidise additional local policing from taxes from the wider community. Let the people of the county pay for the policing of county, which is distributed according to priorities set out by the County Council, while local parishes or wards control their own budgets, which they can augment as they see fit from their own resources. This would strengthen the link between the taxpayer and the public service, and ensure that county-wide resources were allocated according to need, and not ability to pay.
These days it's a different type that is getting them excited.

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