The National Audit Office has turned out to be one of local government’s best friends.
Since the demise of the Audit Commission, the NAO has published a series of reports about the financial sustainability of councils, the police and about other issues of importance to local democracy. While the NAO cannot look at individual authorities, it has been able to report on system-wide pressures facing the sector.
Another publication, launched on Tuesday this week, brings the news that police spending has dropped by as much as 25% (Northumbria) in real terms since 2010. As NAO reports have to be agreed before publication with the relevant Whitehall department, there is no way the Home Office can dispute the numbers. Several of England and Wales’s largest forces, including the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and the Metropolitan Police, have seen overall funding cuts of between 21 and 24%.
Police officers numbers are down by 15%, with community support officer numbers down 40%. The NAO believes “there are signs emerging that forces are finding it harder to deliver an effective service”. The Home Office is criticised for having “no overarching strategy for policing, limiting its ability to plan investments and programmes of work over the longer term” and for not knowing “if the police system is financially sustainable”.
Looking ahead, the NAO believes the government “should review the funding formula and adopt an approach to funding that takes account of forces’ local circumstances more fairly”. In making this observation, it is suggested that a different distribution of resources might help forces to deliver more effective policing. While this is possible, there must be a risk that (as with the fair funding review under way for councils in England) a mere redistribution of money can be seen as a solution to managing long-term spending reductions.
In truth, redistributing 80% of the resources available in 2010-11 (or 70% in the case of local government) is not the same as ensuring the sector as a whole is properly funded. Only the forthcoming spending review can tackle that problem and the betting is police and council spending will be cut further.