The austerity effect on UK police forces


By Alison Dewhirst, CIPFA Police Advisor

Last year’s announcements of additional funding for police forces in the UK has been well received by the public sector. The government’s plan to recruit 20,000 new police officers over the next three years, also known as ’Operation Uplift’, served as the first major financial package for police since austerity began 10 years ago. Putting the ongoing coronavirus crisis and unprecedented fiscal stimulus aside, the Chancellor declared that the ‘page had been turned on austerity’ during the March 2020 budget. However, even with government’s financial taps effectively turned back on, the past decade of austerity and chronically stretched resources changed the way police forces operate in many ways.

With strained budgets and limited human resources, many UK police forces have stepped up to the plate to maintain their day-to-day operations and projects. The last decade has seen many police forces partner more and more with organisations like councils and children’s homes in an effort to lower the demand for police services. Income management has also become a more important way for police forces to supplement austerity-era budgets. Filming rights for police-owned facilities, advertising revenue and fitting out police vehicles for other regional police forces has become a new route for some forces to strengthen their financial position. UK forces have become increasingly creative and comprehensive in their approach to policing and financial management as a result of austerity.

Another key change that resulted from austerity can be summed up in one word: prioritisation. We’re all too familiar with stories of crime failing to be properly investigated, slow response times or low rates of prosecution. With fewer officers in our community, police forces across the UK have had to focus efforts on prioritising community operations so as to maintain public order and confidence. Deciding where available financial resources and personnel are allocated during of periods of high demand has now become a day-to-day struggle for many. The complexity and scale of criminal activity has also increased in previous years; instances of abuse being a prime example. With certain types of crime proving to be more time-intensive for the police to deal with and investigate, forces have been under immense pressure. Hopefully, the additional officers recruited through Operation Uplift will eliminate some of these issues, depending on where they’re allocated.

Annual budgeting of police funds for each regional force has also changed in the era of austerity. Each year, balancing budgets for policing has been a significant challenge. Police officers earn pay increases and the national inflation rate changes, while the operating budget hasn’t always kept up with that pace. Ultimately, this has contributed to a lack of adequate funding for police development, investment in technology and training. Despite modest flat-cash increases and expansions in precepts and in recent years, ongoing budgetary pressures still impact upon programmes and investment across the country.

UK police forces have had to change nearly every aspect of their planning and operations as a result of austerity. It goes without saying that many of those changes have been for the better, with increased efficiencies and streamlining measures put in place that bring better value for money. However, some austerity-related measures have limited the positive impact that police can and do have on our communities. It will likely be some time before we see things start to change significantly for the better, but government police funding announced this year will give a notable boost to that process.

This article first appeared in Police Professional.

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