Danny Shaw, Head of Strategy and Insight, Friday 30 April 2021
With policing under an intense spotlight, voters go to the polls next Thursday for the third - and arguably the most critical - Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections since the system was established in 2012. There are 35 PCCs to be elected in England and four in Wales, together with three mayors, in Greater Manchester, London and West Yorkshire, each of whom will have policing powers. The important role PCCs and mayors play in criminal justice is often overlooked: they set the priorities, strategy and budget for local police forces; appoint, and if necessary dismiss, the chief constable; commission services for victims and help co-ordinate the work of crime reduction and community safety agencies. Our Head of Strategy and Insight, Danny Shaw, looks at five issues to focus on in the elections, which were postponed from last year due to the pandemic
Decline of Independents
The longer PCCs have been around the harder it’s become for independent candidates. In November 2012, in the inaugural poll, 12 non-affiliated commissioners were voted in. A 15.1% turn-out - the lowest at a non-local government election in the UK in peace-time - had helped level the playing field. But in 2016 the main political parties used more of their campaigning muscle and resources; the turn-out was higher, 27.3% - and just three independents were voted in. Two of them, Sue Mountstevens in Avon and Somerset and Martyn Underhill in Dorset, are now standing down which means it’s possible only one independent, Martin Surl in Gloucestershire, will be successful this time. The Government plans to replace the Supplementary Vote system with first-past-the-post in time for the next set of PCC elections - a move which is likely to diminish the prospects for independents even further. Ministers have clearly decided that it would rather face criticism about a party political stranglehold over PCCs than risk a clutch of maverick candidates being elected in the future.
The decision by the independent PCCs to step down in Dorset and Avon and Somerset makes both seats hard to call in an election which, overall, is full of uncertainties. A number of seats will see their third different PCC or Acting PCC in less than nine years. Bedfordshire, which went Labour in 2012 and Conservative four years later, and Leicestershire, first held by a Tory then Labour, fall into this category, as do Cleveland, Durham, Hampshire, Norfolk, North Wales and the West Midlands. When voters in Cambridgeshire choose their new PCC he or she will be the fourth person to take office. Change is inevitable in a democracy but the high rate of turnover in these seats, and potentially others too, may not provide the best foundations for long-term planning decisions in each area.
A new bunch
With so many of the existing PCCs standing down, 17 of those elected will be new to the role and, depending on results, the number of newcomers could be as high as 25. That will create welcome opportunities for fresh thinking in policing at a time when there’ll also be about a dozen newly-appointed chief constables. But for PCCs who lack experience it will bring significant challenges: the criminal justice landscape is a complex one and takes time to navigate. After a period when the Home Office took a largely ‘hands-off’ approach to the performance of individual forces, ministers are increasingly ‘leaning in’ - setting clear priorities and expectations and bolstering accountability. The potential for conflict with Whitehall is greater than it has been for years.
First female Metro Mayor?
Women are seriously under-represented among candidates in the elections with only 48 standing - less than a-quarter of the total. However, it’s the highest number of female contenders in any of the three PCC elections and one of them, the Labour MP Tracy Brabin, could become the first ever female Metro Mayor. She’s standing in West Yorkshire, which has never had a regional mayor with policing powers before. In 2012 and 2016 the PCC contests were won comfortably by Labour’s Mark Burns-Williamson. Brabin, who used to star in Coronation Street, has pledged to give up her Commons seat if elected.
PCCs and mayors are likely to be given extra powers in the years ahead - which is why these elections are so important. Four PCCs, in Essex, Northamptonshire, North Yorkshire and Staffordshire, already oversee local fire and rescue services, and the Government is considering ways of allowing other commissioners in England to take on responsibility for fire. Ministers are also drawing up proposals to strengthen the role PCCs and mayors play in tackling re-offending to help reduce crime. The details are expected to be set out in the coming months.
Crest Advisory is working with the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners and carrying out research which will help PCCs understand crime trends and demand for policing services in each area.