Essex will, in October, become the first county where both the police and the fire service will become accountable to a single elected official, the currently titled Essex Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC). Why is this happening; what will it mean and how smooth will this transition be?
I have to declare an interest. As the first PCC for Essex I initiated the work that has now led to this change. The PCC model of governance – a single elected person replacing the old appointed Police Authority – was introduced amidst some controversy, but more general apathy, in 2012. Undaunted, in 2015 the new Government made clear that it thought there was merit in extending this governance model to the other emergency services.
I became sure that this could not easily apply to the ambulance service which is so firmly a part of a complex, and highly stressed health system. But bringing police and fire closer together seemed worth pursuing.
The arguments for ensuring our local public services are accountable to a locally elected official are strong, though not uncontested. There still is criticism of the PCC model, but there is evidence that it can work well, and many would at least agree it is a more visible and accountable model than that of the old police authorities. The innovation that PCCs have driven in many areas of policing and criminal justice is certainly evidence of new ideas at work.
The evidence of the ineffectiveness of the Essex Fire Authority is damning. The Essex County Fire and Rescue Service was severely criticised in an independent report in 2015 for failing to tackle a ‘toxic’ culture, and significant leadership issues were not gripped. A large committee, sometimes divided on party lines is at best a cumbersome way of tackling difficult issues and managing a modern public service. From October we will have someone on the hook for sorting out these issues as well as for exploring new ways of delivering two critical public safety services.
There will be some real opportunities for changing how these services are delivered. Over time, sharing buildings, vehicle maintenance, support services such as procurement, HR and finance, and tackling the important issues of technology and communications will undoubtedly yield savings. These must be reinvested in front line firefighting, policing and community safety services.
One area that is ripe for modernisation and rationalisation is the broad area of community safety, linked with crime and fire prevention. Both police and fire, often using volunteer resources, are currently seeking to reach the same vulnerable members of our communities to deliver crime prevention or fire safety advice. Working with local councils, and here possibly with health partners too, there is huge scope for taking a more joined-up approach to this increasingly important task.
This change is not about merging the services; policing and fire are likely to remain separate professions. But there are areas of overlap where new approaches will deliver better public services. It is that ambition which surely has to trump tradition and the cultural barriers that have been so much to the fore in past arguments.
This won’t be an easy road. Those cultural barriers have to be overcome and the strong independent traditions merged, while maintaining all that is good about them. Organisational change is rarely easy and this has to be done against a backdrop of scarce resources. This will be a challenge, especially if as is likely there is a need for capital investment, for example in buildings and technology. I don’t think that is a sufficient reason to delay. A few other counties may soon follow Essex’s lead; others will wait and see and some, for a variety of reasons, have set their faces against change.
Here at the Policing Institute for the Eastern Region (PIER) we will be keeping a critical eye on the change to see if it is successful. As with the introduction of PCCs, only time will tell. I expect that if the Commissioner keeps his eye on the needs of the public, and on delivering the best possible and affordable public services, it will be.