On the 9th of October 2012 I attended the police priority setting meeting for the area covering Histon, Impington, Cottenham, Milton, Chittering, Oakington and Waterbeach.
The priorities were not set by democratically elected representatives, but by mob rule, anyone who turned up would have been given a vote. A number of councillors were present, but they lurked in the public seating with other attendees. Those councillors who were recognised by Inspector Savage who was chairing the meeting were named when called to speak but none pro-actively identified themselves. I would like to see a Police and Crime Commissioner have democratically elected councillors set local police priorities and hold the police to account across the force area.
Histon Police Station
Histon police station has been identified as one element of the police force’s property estate which could be sold off. I noted the Chief Constable had told the Police Authority’s Finance Committee on the 5th of September that only 3-4 people a week used such police stations. I asked if that was accurate, and how the police station in Histon was used.
I was surprised to be told that Histon police station is the base for between twenty and thirty police officers, officers who start their days there and work in the villages of South Cambridgeshire. Closing the station would mean these officers would have to be based elsewhere, for example in Cambourne or Parkside in central Cambridge. I, and the meeting, was told there is a 24/7 police presence in the police station in Histon (though the front desk is only open four hours per day, just four days a week). We were told that officers were able to use the station to do as much as possible locally, including letting people come in and provide their driving documents if they had been required to produce them, and things like providing statements and interviews were carried out. Custody was the only thing mentioned which would require officers to visit Parkside in central Cambridge.
This was an astonishing different picture of a police station than that which I thought had been painted at by the Chief Constable at the Police Authority meeting which was considering selling it off – the impression given their was that it was hardly used.
Cllr Jonathan Chatfield (South Cambridgeshire District Councillor for Histon & Impington, Liberal Democrat) asked for an update on the position in relation to the police station closure.
Unusually for a local police priority setting meeting the chair, Inspector Savage, had a copy of the Police Authority Finance Committee‘s minutes with him, and quoted from them on the subject of the Histon police station closure. Typically front-line police officers are barely aware of the existence of the police authority.
The final decision will be taken by the incoming Police and Crime Commissioner. One member of the public expressed a very odd view, but a common one I’ve seen at such meetings, asking what a Police and Crime Commissioner would be required to do in the way of consultation – I think this is odd as surely the key question is not what would commissioners be required to do – but what prospective commissioners are promising to do. Questions such as if the police station will remain open, or how any decision will be made are now in the hands of the public as the commissioner is elected. Listening to attendees at priority setting meetings you’d think some of them didn’t live in a democratic country, or a country embracing localism, as they appear to expect edicts to be handed down from above and local democratic elected representatives to have very little freedom in which to operate. I worry this attitude might be underlying the apparent apathy surrounding the police and crime commissioner elections, and some people might have a bit of a shock when an elected commissioner ends up with real power.
One member of the public noted that selling off an asset was something that could only be done once, and it shouldn’t be done to try and balance the books in the short term, he said if there was an operational need for the police station, it ought be retained.
I agree with that view, and while it appears the under-used front-desk clearly isn’t a good reason to keep the police station (with all its associated maintenance costs) on its own, but there is a clear need to understand the impact of its loss on the way the police work.
Inspector Savage noted there were potential benefits from basing the police elsewhere – for example on school/college sites or even at usually unmanned fire stations as in both cases the presence of police operating from the building provided extra security into the evening and overnight.
There has, as was noted at the Police Authority Committee meeting been a commitment from the force to maintain somewhere in Histon as a police base, even if that is within Tesco, or within the Library for example.
Youth Input Leads to Priority
Sgt Paul Rogerson told the group that a number of meetings with young people had been held in schools, and he said he would bring what they had said to the meeting’s attention so they could consider them when setting the priorities.
When it came to the priority setting part of the meeting I prompted Sgt Rogerson to tell us what had been said (there was nothing in the written report). We were told that the main issue raised had been drug use in Waterbeach, on the green and recreation area. This is use of cannabis by young people and the police reported that they had found evidence of discarded detritus showing evidence of cannabis use.
I would have like to have heard more about exactly what was being raised as an issue. Are for example young people concerned that some of their peers are making poor decisions in relation to their health and lifestyle? Are they raising problems with education? Do they feel that the drug users are denying them, the majority, use of the public space?
I think that where there are elected student representatives, be they school council, or student union representatives, they ought be given a formal role in police priority setting meetings and encouraged to attend. I also think that the results of all police engagement activity ought be fed into the priority setting meeting so the views of those who don’t attend but have sought to influence priorities via other channels have their voices heard. Every priority setting meeting should have a mechanism for accepting suggestions in public from those who don’t want to make them to the meeting, or want to raise them before hand, for example using Facebook, or the County Council’s ShapeYourPlace website.
Neighbourhood vs Response
The meeting started with Inspector Savage introducing his Neighbourhood Sergeant for the area, and also a response Sergeant.
The Chief Constable has been saying he has removed the Response/Neighbourhood officer split so I was surprised to hear the distinction still being used.
Inspector Savage said that in South Cambridgeshire there are three geographical area sergeants, and five sergeants responsible for “response”. Neighbourhood policing is not we were told a 24/7 activity but “response” is.
Sgt Rogerson expanded, he explained that where the boundaries had been broken down was at the level of police constables, he said there were no longer two different jobs, one of neighbourhood PC and one of response PC, and in fact in South Cambridgeshire the pool of PCs doing both jobs was now merged.
Inspector Savage also noted that PCs were taking on specific areas and taking responsibility for them.
I was encouraged to hear this detail about how the distinction between response and neighbourhood officers was being broken down and that PCs are taking responsibility for particular areas. I think there was a problem leading to neighbourhood officers often having to apologise for inappropriate and often heavy handed, and ill-informed, actions by their response counterparts and it is massively positive to see this re-organisation taking place.
Interestingly Inspector Savage said he used the terms “Neighbourhood” and “Response” as he thought the public were familiar with them. I certainly wasn’t until a few years ago, and I think there is actually very little awareness among the general public about the way the police are organised internally.
Information collected by speedwatch volunteers was presented to the meeting. This is the first time I’ve seen this happen, it was excellent to see it, though the police admitted they had not been recording such information collected in the past (they have acted on it sending warning letters out to drivers).
The publication of even more data, including the timing of the speedwatch work, was requested.
I asked if any of the data indicated there might be a problem on some of the roads targeted to such a degree which would warrant a 24/7 survey over a week using less high visibility techniques (the force have RADAR and pressure strip speed survey equipment). Inspector Savage said he would consider this, in light of where surveys had been carried out recently.
One member of the public who I thought was Cllr David Jenkins until about half way through the meeting Cllr Jenkins himself turned up, said he had heard of attempted robberies of cyclists on the busway. He said someone with a scarf over their face was cycling up to people and trying to grab cyclist’s bags. The police said they had received no such reports.
Often these priority setting meetings get such things reported at them; I find this baffling – why do people report this kind of thing at these meetings (or via their councillors) and not directly to the police? At the Sawston meeting I attended recently the proceedings are mainly taken up with such reports.
The police said though that they were aware that people using the busway felt vulnerable. They said the main complaint they had received related to the behaviour of drunken people walking home from Cambridge to Histon along the busway and coming into conflict with cyclists though as Inspector Savage put it “being boisterous”.
Cllr Mike Todd-Jones, chair of Cambridge’s North Area Committee was present at the meeting. He was there to tell people about the North Area Transport Corridor budget for spending development taxes on transport infrastructure, he noted that lighting the busway was one of the projects currently towards the top of the list.
No residents of Orchard Park were present. Community Councillor Clare Blair (who doesn’t live on the estate) sent her apologies and tweeted to say:
Thanks. OPCC [Orchard Park Community Council] much quieter on green spaces and thanks for the work over last quarter. Apologies we cannot be there.
Inspector Savage reported that Orchard Park was well served by local council funded youth workers and he said they were approaching youths and pointing out newly installed CCTV cameras to try and deter vandalism. He said the police often send “someone in uniform” around too.
Professional Shoplifter Caught
A member of the public asked what the police meant when they said they had caught a prolific shoplifter. He asked how the police knew he was prolific and why they had not caught him the first time.
The police explained that sometimes when they caught someone they admitted other offences and asked for them to be “taken into account” when they were sentenced. The police also said that sometimes they are aware from CCTV for example that someone is committing offences but it takes time then to actually catch them.
In this case Sgt Rogerson described the individual as a “professional shoplifter”, he said he focused on Co-op shops, even targeting them at particular times when they had young staff working who were less likely to challenge a shoplifter.
Histon – Cottenham Cycle Path
Parking, and “anti-social cycling” on the Histon – Cottenham cycle path was raised.
Sgt Rogerson intriguingly said he had been in-touch with a “victim” of the parking on the cycle way. I have no idea how someone would be a “victim” in that case? One of those present said that there were daily problems with parking on the cycle way. The police said one problem was visitors to houses on the road at the Cottenham end and they would be getting in touch with householders there to try and address the problem.
Cllr Jonathan Chatfield asked if PCSOs were under threat in the next year. Inspector Savage confirmed that the funding for PCSOs is no longer to be ring-fenced as of the end of the financial year.
In other words it will be up to the incoming Police and Crime Commissioner if to have policing carried out by PCs or PCSOs.
My view is that PCs, with the full powers of a police constable, are better value than a PCSO who while dressed up like a police officer lacks the full powers of a police constable. A member of the public muttered that good PCSOs want to become PCs anyway, and I think that those PCSOs who are capable ought be made PCs and given the full powers.
There will be a need to keep PCs from being distracted by other work, but I think that can be done via good management, and by means such as those mentioned earlier, like giving each PC responsibility for a particular geographic area to get to know in detail.
I thought the tone of Cllr Chatfield’s question was odd, as again, if the future of neighbourhood policing is by PCSOs or not is one of many things which is up to us to decide during the Police and Crime Commissioner elections.
- No declared candidates for Cambridgeshire’s Police & Crime Commissioner were present at the meeting.
- Sgt Rogerson gave examples of “ASB” (anti-social behaviour) on green spaces, which had been set as a previous priority. He cited: “Litter, damage, noise, disturbing neighbours’ piece and quiet.”
- The meeting was told that “all neighbourhood officers” will be on duty on Halloween and Bonfire Night.
- A member of the public, who sounded as if she might be a Histon Parish Councillor who didn’t identify herself, asked for Histon police statistics to be separated from Orchard Park’s. Inspector Savage said that a district council ward was the smallest area for which police statistics were produced. He said there were a number of areas in the force area where higher resolution would be useful as there were distinct areas (villages/parishes) within the same ward. Inspector Savage suggested it might be possible to extract data based on postcodes via the force website. I suspect he was referring to the Police.UK website.
- A member of the public mentioned dangerous dogs on a recreation ground in Cottenham; he said he had been challenged but refused to take the dogs away. The police said this could be a police issue, especially if the person responsible for enforcing the by-laws on behalf of the council was being ignored.
- Three dogs which had been roaming loose on Twenty Pence Road in Cottenham have been seized since the previous meeting.
- A hut owned by Histon Parish council is getting vandalised. They’ve tried both locking it up and leaving it empty and open but it still gets vandalised.
- No one was present from Milton, and no issues were raised relating to the village, but the police urged the public to report any suspicious activity at commercial premises as there have been break-ins.
- A member of the public said they valued local police panel meetings and wanted to keep them; she asked the police if a commissioner would keep them. Again this was an odd question as what the questioner should be doing is thinking about who they want to elect as their police and crime commissioner, and choosing someone who wants the kind of meetings she wants to see.
- The meeting was told that the Home Office trials of mobile average speed cameras were still underway, and only when they’ve been approved will they be available to Cambridgeshire. Sgt Rogerson said it had not been possible for Cambridgeshire to get involved with trailing them despite there being a lot of interest in deploying them in villages in the force area. The meeting was told that Raymond Brown of the Cambridge news has been investigating the technology and it was suggested there might be an article in the Cambridge News about the cameras soon.
- Someone noted the levels of bike theft and burglary were low, but higher than in previous periods. No priority was set in these areas.
- Cllr John Reynolds was present. He said he was there on behalf of the Police Authority which still has, he said, 42 days left in existence. Cllr John Reynolds said nothing during the meeting. Afterwards he told me my questions on the Police Authority keeping all their staff on to hand over to commissioners had prompted some discussion among authority members who had not really considered the matter in detail before I raised it. (See my article: Million Pound a Year Personal Office for Cambs Police and Crime Commissioner
- No issues were raised by the public present in relation to Oakington, Rampton, Chittering, Waterbeach, Milton, Orchard Park or Landbeach. I suspect this might be due to a lack of publicity of the meeting in these areas.
- South Cambridgeshire District Council’s webpage on Neighbourhood Panels didn’t list the meeting, it wasn’t listed on the popular Police.UK website either or on the police force’s webpage for the area.
- Parish Councillor Katherine Heydon of Cottenham sent her apologies to the meeting.
There was no formal hands up vote, Inspector Savage sought to summarise the meeting then ask if there was either agreement or disagreement. I think what was set as a priority was:
- Road Safety
- Anti-social behaviour (including busway related crime???)
- Drug use in Waterbeach
I was sent a copy of the police report by email, it was not published online either by the police or South Cambridgeshire District Council, I placed my copy online:
I attended the previous meeting in July 2012 and wrote and article on it.