Wednesday 28 November 2007

When is a police station closure not a closure but an enhanced service?

So, the Asset Management Plan for the London Borough of Camden has been issued by the Metropolitan Police Authority.

It's a genuine, open, transparent process in which local people will fully participate. Ok, ok I'm being a bit cynical but after a two and a half year battle to get some of this stuff into the public domain I think I can be a teeny weeny bit cynical... but it is all deadly serious. The first meeting to discuss this will be on Thursday at 7pm at Camden Town Hall - anyone can come along and see if the police are listening... I'll be there.

I do hope that the consultation is genuine and that a real dialogue can happen - and that the this can comprise the community (genuinely and not a traditional police tokenistic approach), the London Borough of Camden (who are property asset rich and also need strong visible community presence), the Corporation of London (who have the Hampstead Heath Constabulary locally), the Royal Free Hospital and the University College London Hospital (the hospitals have some of the highest crime rates) and the CPCCG (Camden Policy Consultative Community Group).

The bottom line of the Plan is that the Police are about to change the nature of policing in the local area. What are the changes?
  1. There will at last be a new state-of-the-art custody suite to tackle finally the disgrace that currently exists across the Borough

  2. There will be high street shop fronts occupied by Safer Neighbourhoods Team (this will be the preference over old stuffy traditional police station counters)

  3. Patrol Police will be moved out of all (including West Hampstead and Hampstead - pictured) Police Stations and placed in a central warehouse building (yet to be identified) in central Camden.

  4. Two of the six current police stations (Hampstead and Kentish Town) will cease to fulfill that function in the lifespan of the current plan (3-5 years).

  5. Hampstead Police Station (a significant site for which the police own the freehold valued at £10-14million) will be disposed of.

So what's the problem?

No-one doubts the need for custody suites - the current situation is disgraceful and has led to tragedy and legitimate accusations of neglect by the police. But this has been used against the host of current buildings as a whole. The failings in custody have been used to condemn all the current police facilities and that doesn't seem quite right. I believe that the case for custody suite improvements should not be held up by wider debate, but as so often the case with law reform and unfashionable causes the facilities for the accused slip off the agenda unless trumpeted by the brave (often the few).

The Plan talks variously about pre-1935 and pre-1940 buildings as though they are of their nature all flawed. This ignores the failure of the Police Estates Team to maintain and develop their buildings and reflects what has been outright neglect of the buildings they hold in trust for the community. This is further exacerbated when you realise that any sale of any land asset will not go to the respective Borough but into the MPA central London-wide coffers. The fact is old buildings can be modernised. If they sold, for example Hampstead Police Station, are they suggesting that the developer would replicate the small rooms, disconnected by corridors etc? The reality of course is that any developer would open the building up into real space that can be used, indeed probably even lived in or dined in! Why don't the police do that and make it operational space again?

The Police are reassuring us that they will replace like for like, and indeed it will often be better facilities. But of course the foundations they are constructing are incredibly flimsy. Safer Neighbourhoods is new, barely conceived, let alone tested, and to take front line counter services out of freehold owned Police Stations and place them into leasehold rented shop-fronts creates a risk. It will expose much of our policing resource to the annual battles and strains of budgets and cuts in the future - I don't think policing should be put in that position.

Patrol Police - this is the most interesting. As well all know there is some truth to the adage that 'everything is local' but with policing this is especially the case. One of the reasons the public feel reassured by local police stations that have stood the test of time is that the police based in them know the local area. They know what is and isn't a one way street in Hampstead, they know which roads you can turn right off of on the Finchley Road, they know the boundaries and railway bridges on the Kilburn High Road etc etc. By creating a central command centre (which the police describe as a Patrol Base) then there will be none of this familiarity, none of the attachment and loyalty and areas will legitimately risk feeling like they are nelegected by the reduced sustained visibility.

It is this last point that is the most objectionable. I believe that the withdrawal of these uniformed police from West Hampstead and Hampstead Police Stations is a major conundrum for Fortune Green, West Hampstead, Frognal, Hampstead, South End Green, Belsize. In short, many areas, often outlying (often places close to Borough boundaries), will see fewer police on the streets, we will find there is a lower level of police knowledge and it will lead to a lower standard of crime fighting than we deserve. It will be too easy to neglect residential areas in favour of commercial areas, teams will be swapped around, the traditional police base will be miles away from the boundaries of the Borough and we will see the effects through absence rather than activity.

Further, and crucially I do not believe that there will be anything like the commitment to the shop front strategy from the 'operational police' who will regard it as the remit of the 'Safer Neighbourhood Teams'.

This latter point has particular credence if you read any of the police trade press or follow the debate on Community Police Support Officers versus fully fledged Police Officers (the difference strikes me as a bit strained and narrow, but it is a fact that there is a divide and it's a current debate. This is not dissimilar between the debate of teachers versus teaching assistants).

So, the Borough Commander (Mark Heath) has promised that the consultation is genuine, and open and transparent - indeed he has to his credit asked for extra time for the consultation as it's happening over the christmas new year period, but I have significant doubts. Why do I doubt his word?

Well, the following pages in the report have assumptions that the report is fixed in stone and will be implemented in due course once the consultation is over!

  • Page 4, last line "This document... gives details of the changes and developments planned over the next three years"

  • Page 5 penultimate para "We will start to implement the proposals in this plan at the earliest opportunity"

  • Page 9 "Over the next 5 sections we will introduce to you the key parts of the future Met police Estate for the borough and explain why these facilities are needed"

  • Page 11 "It is our intention to move these teams to permanent bases... as soon as suitable bases become available."

  • Page 13 "This would be a new style of police base... Potential sites are now being sought for this facility".

As I said, the first meeting to discuss this will be on Thursday at 7pm at Camden Town Hall - anyone can come along and see if the police are listening... I'll be there.

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