January is the time of year when final budget proposals are prepared for the next financial year and decisions are made on the level of council tax to set for policing in Suffolk.
As usual I am most anxious to hear your thoughts before making a final precept decision and have launched a consultation to gauge your views.
Back at the beginning of December the Suffolk Local Policing Review was published and the original plans meant we’d have to make £20.5 million of savings from the annual budget of £120 million by March 2020. A comprehensive review of local policing was contributing £5 million of those savings and consequently there were some painful decisions to be made, including a reduction in the number of PCSOs and the closure of the front desks open to the public, except for the three main towns including Bury St Edmunds.
Just before Christmas, however, there was some very welcome news – our settlement from the Home Office was considerably better than expected and the overall savings target was reduced by £9 million. This still leaves some difficult choices to be made, but what is quite clear is that Suffolk Constabulary is in a much better position financially than before.
In addition to the financial pressures the other significant challenge we face is the rapidly changing pattern of crime. The level of crime now being committed on line or via social media is quite staggering and one of my responsibilities as Suffolk’s Commissioner is to make sure these crimes are dealt with. This requires extra resources which is one of the reasons I am proposing a council tax rise.
Part of the improved financial situation is dependent on raising council tax by just under 2% for each of the next four years. Raising taxes is not something I would normally recommend unless there were very good reasons for this. The 2% rise generates an extra £830,000 per year and this extra money will be targeted at specific operational areas; it will fund 20 police officers to focus on protecting vulnerable people and support the county’s cyber-crime investigations and three PCSOs to work specifically in schools. I am not prepared to raise taxes without being absolutely clear to the taxpayer what the extra money delivers.
There are further specific benefits for the west of Suffolk. Next year there will be an additional roads policing unit based at Bury St Edmunds and an expansion of the new rural crime team. These two new initiatives recognise that people and businesses in rural areas pay their taxes like everyone else and policing in the countryside is just as important as in urban areas - rural crime matters, and roads are the lifeblood of our way of life in Suffolk. More must be done to enforce the fatal four to improve road safety and we will continue to invest in road safety initiatives as long as I am Suffolk’s Commissioner. The money for this investment came from internal efficiencies and grants as the Constabulary does not receive any of the money from speeding or parking fines – it goes straight into central government coffers; only excess money from the Speed Awareness Courses (approx. £20 per attendee) remains in the county.
The extra money has also enabled us to recruit three dedicated PCSOs that will focus entirely on better liaison with schools. We have to play our part in making sure that children are brought up to make the right choices in life, have respect for law and order and know the difference between right and wrong and these new PCSO positions have a vital role to play in this. The final piece of good news is recruitment of new officers will recommence as soon as possible. We need to have the resources to confront organised criminal activity in areas such as human trafficking, illegal immigration and child sexual exploitation. These are crimes which have no place in Suffolk and I will fully support the Constabulary in all their efforts to bring these offenders to justice.
I am very interested in hearing your views on the proposed council tax increase and there is an online survey on our website www.suffolk-pcc.gov.uk. Please complete it by January 28.
-- Tim Passmore is Suffolk’s Police and Crime C0mmissioner