Between A Rock and a Hard Place
PCC Martyn Underhill gives his reasoning for freezing the precept.
I am pleased to be able to announce a freeze to the policing share of the Council Tax bill in Dorset this year. This marks the first year in my term of office where there has been no increase in the amount Dorset residents pay for policing in the county. I always intended freezing the precept for 2015/16, having raised twice in 2013/14 and 2014/15. I made a promise, and I kept it. Today, my decision received the unanimous support of Dorset’s Police and Crime Panel.
Some of you have expressed surprise that I have frozen in the face of cuts.
We acknowledge that most consultation responses supported a rise and I have factored that into my considerations, as have the Panel. However, the rise would have to be substantial to be worthwhile.....let me explain why.
Now, statutorily, I must consult on the level of contribution from local people towards the police. I am pleased that so many of you got involved in local democracy through my precept consultation which attracted the highest return in the region when compared to other PCC offices. It’s important I thank the 2,635 people who responded to our seven week public consultation on the 2015/2016 precept proposals, which closed on Friday 30 January. Of the respondents, 29% have indicated that they support a freeze. 15% would support a 1% increase although this can be achieved by accepting the Freeze Grant at no cost to the council tax payer. 25% have indicated that an increase of around 2% is about right and a further 27% would be happy to support a higher increase. I presented these results, which can be viewed on our website here, to the Police and Crime Panel earlier today.
My proposal to freeze the precept was not taken lightly. I am literally “caught between a rock and a hard place”. The public overwhelmingly said yes to a rise in police funding. But would that rise have been enough? The Government cleverly offer me a 1% central grant (£574,000) as compensation not to raise. The Government also then restrict my leeway in raising the precept by “capping” me. This cap prevents me from raising the precept above 1.99%. What both of these things mean, is that to raise the precept for the public would only secure 1% of extra funding, roughly £500,000. I say only, as in reality, to offset the cuts, I need four or five times that amount. Small wonder that some PCC’s in Wales (who are not capped) are announcing precept rises of 3, 4 or 5%!
Within the restrictions placed on me politically, I have sought to balance the needs of our police service with the demands on families across Dorset. My preference, naturally, is that wherever possible, I would prefer the government to fund local policing rather than residents of Dorset having to bridge the funding gap in these difficult financial times. That is why I have decided to accept the £574,000.
But rest assured I will keep fighting for more equity. I am pleased to announce that I have been appointed to the Government Police Funding Formula Panel where I will be fighting hard over the next few months to secure fairer funding for Dorset to move us off the bottom of the national funding league tables. I hope to secure that missing £500,000 from Government not you.
It is important to note that this consultation will inform future plans as well as current plans. I do hear what you say, each year, more of you say raise police funding.
We are facing difficult times in policing. The upcoming General Election brings with it more uncertainty over the future of funding. Next year, one of the main political parties is predicting a 6% cut to the budget year on year to 2019. That equates to removing 41% of central funding to policing in 9 years.
If that happens, not only could we be looking at a precept rise, I will also actively explore going to referendum, asking you, the people of Dorset, to support a much higher rise. I say a referendum because the law says that to go above 2%, I have to call one. Announcements made by the Chancellor’s Autumn statement have made it clear that further cuts in public spending will be required by whatever Government is in power after the General Election. Whilst I will be pushing hard over the rest of my term for fairer funding from Government to reduce the need to increase council tax to compensate, in future years, we may have no choice.
So to those of you who ask “Why bother consulting, we said raise, and you froze” I say this. I am caught between a rock and a hard place and my hands are very much tied by Government. Please treat this year as the “calm before the storm”. Next year, all bets on police funding are off. Next year, a raise and/or a referendum are likely.
Thanks for taking the time to read this, and thanks for your interest and support.
Dorset Police and Crime Commissioner