Sold down the river………..a Police Station
Our Police Station – sold down the river
The announcement that Walton-on Thames Police station along with all the others in Elmbridge is up for sale marks the closing stages of the withdrawal of policing as we expect it to be done in our town.
In order for the Surrey Police Authority (SPA) to meet the minimum legal obligation of consulting the Public about Force changes, it put out information about the cost of running Police Stations at meetings, in leaflets and newsletters and in the local Press. This information stated that each visit to a Police Station cost £82 on average, putting the total cost at £2.4 million. Figures obtained by the Walton Society from SPA showed that £30 of this figure was for hypothetical Capital Borrowing costs in the future, if the Police stations were not sold. This information was then used as the basis for justifying the proposed sale of the Police Estate in the ‘Public Consultation’ that took place last year which was riddled with leading questions and which received a response from a total of 0.39% of the entire population of Surrey. We believe that SPA has misled the Public on this matter and have therefore made an official complaint to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Though this matter has been passed to the Professional Standards Department at SPA, the Society still awaits a formal reply.
On your behalf, your Chairman, Treasurer and Councillor Chris Sadler attended a meeting with the Chairman of Surrey Police Authority, Peter Williams, Chief Superintendant Gavin Stephen, Officer i/c Neighbourhood Policing and driving force behind current proposed changes and Inspector Hollingsworth, Officer i/c Elmbridge Neighbourhood Police.
The Society had obtained the true running cost of Walton Police Station as well as that of Esher. By making a rough estimate of the costs of running Cobham and Molesey we calculated that the sale of all 4 Elmbridge Police Stations would result in the employment of up to 4 extra Police Officers. In actual fact, following our meeting, the SPA have now given us their own figures and these show that they expect to employ 5 extra Police Officers in Elmbridge as a direct result of savings made from selling Police Stations plus one extra Officer from savings made by cutting senior ranked Officers. However, with a review in 5 years time of the cost of the lease at the Esher Civic Centre which itself is renewable after 10 years, as well as annual pay rises, increases in allowances and increments, it would appear that with further cuts these extra 6 Officers, for a population in excess of 130,000, may only represent a temporary increase in numbers.
Whereas we welcome any change that places more Officers on the streets, this figure, if multiplied up over the 11 Boroughs in the County allows 66 Extra Police officers to be employed. This is hardly consistent with the proud boast made and repeated many times over the last year or so that Surrey Police would be making these changes to employ ‘up to 200 extra Police Officers’. In fact it now appears that even though SPA has stated that ’Nearly 100 officers have been recruited this year – in addition to normal recruitment, and Surrey is one of the only Forces still recruiting police officers’ (16.12.2010), the actual number of full time Police Officers which would now be expected to be much higher than a year ago has actually fallen from a peak in 2006 of 1,967 to 1878 in December 2010 to 1856 in March 2011 and then further to 1788 in April 2011. Current figures are not available as the Staffing section of the SPA Freedom of Information site is no longer available for public scrutiny. It would therefore appear that this reduction in overall full time Police Officer numbers would more than have achieved the savings needed to keep the Force afloat. It has also been noted that a change in terminology has crept in recently and the SPA is now referring to ‘extra constables’ rather than extra Police Officers.
At the meeting with the SPA the question was raised as to what the Walton Society actually wanted to achieve. The reply was quite simple. It is felt that the move into Civic Centres by Neighbourhood Officers must be seen as an experiment. Throughout the history of Policing in this country, changes have been brought in with great enthusiasm as a result of new thinking and new technology, only to be replaced a few years later as things move on. For example, when Walton had a 24/7 operational Police station local residents could ring the station number and get a faster response time by Officers on foot than is now achieved in a car. This was in the days when fewer overall numbers of Police were employed. Indeed the use of single manned response cars may need to be reviewed as we feel that this asks too much of the individual officers operating them. The problem with the changes proposed by SPA at the present time is that the current regime will impose an irreversible system on all future generations, leaving no room for manoeuvre, with a total dependence on accommodation provided by local Councils. Should circumstances change and the Council decides not to renew the lease after the 10 year period, then the Police will be left with no base in the Borough at all. The Walton Society therefore is asking that the SPA rethink this short-sighted and risky policy and retain the Police station in our town, putting it up for commercial rent, perhaps for small business units. Part of it could be used as the Town Police post, complete with free parking, and with a small amount of initiative and careful management the building would be of use to the Police without being a financial burden to them. It would have the added advantage of providing them with a fall back base in the town if the proposed move to the Civic Centre proved in the long run not to be a success or became prohibitively expensive.
We also question the necessity of selling so much Police estate at this time. When the Chairman of the SPA was informed that Walton Police station had been valued at £500,000 he expressed surprise and asked for the source of that information. When shown the Surrey Police document with the valuation, his reaction was “no wonder the Walton Society is concerned”. Clearly the figure on which SPA has been making calculations is way below that which should be gained on the open market and if applied to all the other properties which are being put up for sale suggests that the SPA will raise a capital sum many times greater than is currently required. These funds can only be used for capital projects and the only one that is known at present is the controversial Custody Suite to be built at Salfords near Reigate. We seriously question whether, as quoted in a letter to the Society, that these capital funds can be used for the purchase of vehicles and IT infrastructure. This would mean that Surrey Police would have huge cash and short term investment balances which, due to restrictions on investment and low interest rates, combined with rising inflation, could lose considerable value over time. It would therefore seem prudent not to sell off the entire property portfolio, keeping as real asset which might increase in value instead.
In conclusion the Walton Society, though supporting the proposed move to Esher would like to express the following reservations.
We note that all Neighbourhood Police Officers in Elmbridge will have to sign on for duty at Esher before travelling to their particular area to patrol. Similarly, they will have to sign out at Esher before going home. We estimate that this will not only increase the Transport bill, but may also cost the equivalent in time to that of a full year of service by 2 full time Police Officers. (Circa £100,000). We also note that moving the CCTV facility from Walton Police station will cost £302,000 for the optic fibre link alone, which may not be paid for out of the Police budget but will still come from Public funds. We do not know whether moving the CCTV out of the immediate area will be as effective.
Walton Police station is often busy with up to 25 vehicles parked there at times. These include private cars of PCSO’s and Police Officers working in and around the town, as well as Response vehicles and Dog Handlers vehicles as the Officers concerned take a break after working in the area. Vehicles are also parked here for briefings prior to local operations. This belies the claim that this is an underused building. Despite assurances that Policing will not change as a result of closing the station, we find it difficult to understand quite how the Police will manage without it. Clearly, it will be controversial if Police Officers start to use local Public Roads for parking.
Whereas the Neighbourhood Officers will be embedded with Elmbridge Borough Council, we are concerned that these changes may mean that Neighbourhood Officers, (the ‘eyes and ears ‘of the Force), the Response Officers and the Investigating Officers will become three disparate groups within the Force so that in the event of a major investigation within Walton, for example, enquiries may well be hampered by a lack of cohesion and communication between them.
We would therefore like answers to the following questions:
- What contingency plans, if any, have been put into place if in 10 years time the Civic Centre in Esher is no longer available as the Borough Police Base?
- If the Force continues to spend the funds raised by the sale of the Police estate then what plans are in place, if any, for when the money is spent, or is it the case that this will not happen until the current regime has retired and it becomes a problem for the next generation?
- Will it be less likely that police operations will be carried out in the Walton area as a result of the police station closure and sale?
- Has the SPA made any effort at all to investigate the possibility of retaining Police stations and allowing them to be used as a source of much needed income instead of the current financial burden?
- Has the SPA considered the possible reaction from the public if they try to raise the Council Tax contribution in the current circumstances?
- On the basis that over the last 20 years or more, assurances that changes will not result in a reduction in visible Policing, have clearly been broken, can the SPA this time guarantee a more visible and effective Policing strategy for our town?
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