North Wales' Balance Your Bobbies site

North Wales are running a ‘Balance Your Bobbies’ website for well-over a year, so I’m disappointed I only found out about it last week, because it looks like a really interesting site.

It’s similar to the ‘You Choose’ budget simulator that several councils are using to involve residents in budget decisions, but instead asks people to balance police resources between various neighbourhood priorities.

It does lack some of the finesse of the You Choose model, it doesn’t, for example, attempt to suggest any of the consequences of decisions: for example dedicating a team to ASB might help remove much of it and give highly visible results, but dedicating a team to burglary wouldn’t, most people aren’t aware of burglaries even nearby and only when someone is caught in the act do we know that a specific burglary has been prevented.

However, it does start to introduce residents to the concept of prioritisation for the police – every day the police have to make operational decisions on what they are doing. If you look at trends locally, you can detect the impact some operations have, which aren’t always positive: if you focus on reducing one crime it may mean that other crimes start to creep up. At the neighbourhood level, when you ask your police team to tackle one problem, it means there are lots and lots of things they aren’t tackling.

In London, there is a particular issue since the model of neighbourhood policing is going to change. Instead of the model of each ward having about the same size of team (one sergeant, two constables, three PCSOs) they are being rebalanced according to need. In effect, areas with relatively few problems will lose officers to those areas with more problems. Frankly, the standard size model, a consequence of the rapid introduction of Safer Neighbourhood Teams (SNTs) in London, was never sustainable.

I have been criticised in the past for saying it – but stick by my belief – that it’s impossible to justify dedicating the same level of policing to an area with the top priority of cycling on pavements as to an area concerned with anti-social behaviour problems associated with drink and drugs.

We’re going through the end of our strategic assessment process, and one of the strongest criticisms of it has not been the priorities we’ve suggested, but that we didn’t involve residents at an earlier stage. And we didn’t. That’s something we need to improve.

Even if it’s not perfect, Balance Your Bobbies starts a process of getting people thinking about the issues they face and how to tackle them. Taken a little further, it could start educating both those involved in policing about what the public wants, but also educating the public about the broader strategic priorities and how their decisions – with their SNTs – can feed into them.

It would be fascinating to see how something similar would work in Wandsworth. What would you want your SNT concentrating on? But, perhaps more importantly, what wouldn’t you mind them ignoring?

I only occasionally comment on politics on here. I think I managed to avoid it almost entirely during the election campaign, and to a degree I’m rather proud of that: avoiding politics during an election is what 98% of the population do which makes me decidedly normal.

The irony is that I’m now getting more and more excited by politics. Having been a self-declared semi-detached politician for so long I’m re-thinking it all.

There are a few reasons for this. For a start, I’m increasingly becoming a fan of the coalition. I was instinctively against coalitions, I’m not sure that horse-trading – with the third placed party conducting negotiations with both Labour and the Conservatives – should be the way the government is formed.

But that’s what we were left with. And the end result isn’t too bad. I was pleased to see the strong commitment to civil liberties, for example, that came out from the coalition agreement and pleased to see that localism remains a key policy (whether or not it’s wrapped up in the ‘Big Society’).

The other reason for my rediscovered excitement is the challenge we all face. And this isn’t just the Conservatives, or Liberal Democrats, nor just central government, but everyone. The letter left by Liam Byrne, Labour’s Chief Secretary to the Treasury, to his successor was telling: “I’m afraid there is no money.” A revealingly honest assessment from a government that, having run up record debt, put off the difficult decisions that needed to be taken.

We will all be paying the price for some years to come. It is a price we would have had to pay whatever the outcome of the election, and it won’t be easy. So why am I excited by something that is likely to be so painful?

It’s because it makes politics important again.

I wrote an article for the Local Government Information Unit’s C’llr magazine recently that used an example of some work I did with a local authority in the north. The political leadership had decided that council tax was too high and needed reducing, so they asked council officers to do this.

Of course, council officers couldn’t reduce council tax. They looked at the services they were providing and ran them effectively and efficiently, they didn’t waste money. But they couldn’t take decisions on whether spending on the elderly was more important than spending on reducing teenage pregnancy, or whether investing in playgrounds should take priority over investing in roads – they needed a political steer on what services were nice to have, and which were the essential priorities to the political leadership.

And that is the sort of thinking we will all need to do in the coming months and years. How do we want our areas to develop and what is the best way of making sure that happens? How do we define what is nice to have and what is essential to maintain a healthy and happy society?

To me, that is the new politics. For the past thirteen years Labour has been reducing local government to little more than a delivery agency for their national policies. Now, with a new government, and new challenges, local councils are likely, once again, to free to be the innovators and deliverers who can make a real difference to their neighbourhoods.

I’m currently putting the finishing touches to my presentation for tonight’s public meeting on our community safety priorities for the year.

I’m told that, from the acceptances we’ve received so far, the venue is nearing capacity and we may have to open up the public gallery as an overflow!

However, if you are interested in finding out and influencing what the council, police, probation service and other partners have as their priorities for the year then come along tonight, we should be able to squeeze you in!

The annual ‘Face the Public’ meeting is being held in the Council Chamber at the Town Hall on Wandsworth High Street.  It starts at 6pm and should last no longer than 90 minutes.

UPDATE: The venue has now been moved.  The meeting will be in the Civic Suite, still on Wandsworth High Street.  Police Cadets are helping with the organisation and will be able to point you in the right direction.