Can we really improve rural policing?

The Metropolitan Police Act 1829 established the Metropolitan Police of London (with the exception of the City), replacing the previous system of parish constables and watchmen. The County and Borough Police Act in 1856 led policing to become a requirement throughout England and Wales, paid for by central Government funds distributed to local government. By 1900 England, Wales and Scotland had some 243 constabularies and 46,800 police officers.

The Police Act of 1946 led to mergers and a smaller number of town forces and county forces. Several Acts of Parliament since the 1960s have led to further mergers – including the amalgamation of 8 police forces in Scotland into one – and the current 43 forces covering England and Wales. With the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) in 2012, the establishment of the College of Policing in 2012, Sir Thomas Winsor’s review of police officer and staff pay in 2011 and 2012, the Knight Review in 2013 and provisions under the Policing and Crime Act 2017 to take on the governance of fire and rescue services.

So what more can be done to get ‘rural’ on the policing agenda? Jessica Sellick investigates.

In November 2016 the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners and National Police Chiefs’ Councils (NPCC) published ‘Policing Vision 2025.’ Intended to lead to transformative change across the whole police sector, the vision sets out a police service in 2025 focused on local policing, specialist capabilities, attracting and retaining a workforce, digital policing and joined up business delivery around policing support services and community safety. The vision sets out how ‘by 2025 the police service will have transformed the way it delivers its mission with a keen focus on prevention and vulnerability and the effective management of risk. Police and wider reform will be focused on our people, enabled by systems and processes’ (page 5). The implementation of this Vision is being overseen by the Police Reform and Transformation Board.

In January 2017 the Home Affairs Commons Select Committee launched an inquiry into future policing. Against a backdrop of new forms of crime, technological change and increasing focus on efficiency and innovation, the Committee wanted to explore the challenges of modern policing and examine whether police forces in England and Wales are sufficiently equipped and resourced to keep the public safe. The Inquiry is still open, and copies of oral evidence can be viewed here, and the last committee session watched here. An interesting discussion emerged during the session about whether the appropriate balance of funding between rural and urban forces needs to be looked at – i.e., is there is a need for more intensive neighbourhood policing in cities rather than rural areas or the need to avoid it being seen as an urban versus rural issue?

Are the police forces that cover rural England adequately resourced and able to respond to changing demands and patterns of crime? And what might Policing Vision 2025 mean for rural communities? I offer four points.

Firstly, what are the scale, cost and impacts of crime – and how is ‘rural’ crime understood and acted upon?

Figures on crime levels and trends for England and Wales are primarily based on two sets of statistics: the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) and police recorded data crime.

The CSEW measures long-term trends for a selected range of crimes experienced by the general public, including those not reported to the police. The latest figures, for the year ending June 2017, show that while crime estimated by the survey has fallen considerably from peak levels seen in 1995, crime dealt with by the police has begun to rise. The CSEW estimates there have been 5.8 million incidents of crime in the year ending June 2017, a 9% reduction compared with the previous year. However these estimates do not include fraud and computer misuse offences, for which there were an estimated 10.8 million incidents of crime in the year ending June 2017. John Flatley, crime statistician at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) describes how these figures “suggest that the police are dealing with a growing volume of crime. While improvements made by police forces in recording crime are still a factor in the increase, we judge that there have been genuine increases in crime – particularly in some of the low incidence but more harmful categories.”

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), now Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS), undertakes PEEL assessments. These are annual assessments of the effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy of each police force. PEEL 2016 reveals 240 calls for assistance per 1,000 population for a 12 month period ending 30 June 2016 in England and Wales; 68 recorded crimes per 1,000 population – an increase of 7.8% compared to the previous year but a fall of 3.4% compared to figures for the previous five years. Importantly, the assessment has highlighted the inconsistent mapping of organised crime, which is leading to suggestions that organised criminals form a higher proportion of large metropolitan populations rather than rural populations; and/or that some force areas with a large rural population have artificially high numbers of organised criminals per head of population compared to urban forces.

Rural Crime is defined as ‘any crime that affects those living, working or visiting rural areas of the UK…It covers a wide range of crimes but includes theft of machinery, vehicles, heating oil, metal, diesel and pesticides.’ While there is a tendency to think rural areas experience lower levels of crime than their urban counterparts research carried out by the National Rural Crime Network (NRCN) and NFU Mutual suggests this is not the case.

The Rural Crime Report 2017 published by NFU Mutual, reveals in 2016 rural crime cost the UK £39.2 million –and although this was down 4.3% on the 2015 cost, figures for the first half of 2017 suggest this downward trend will not continue. The report reveals how rural crime is experienced differently across the country: with the worst hit region the North East - where rural crime cost £7.3 million (an increase of 8.7% from 2015) - followed by the Midlands at a cost of £6.7 million (down 1.9% from 2015) and the South East at a cost of £5.9 million (a reduction of 8% compared to 2015). Agricultural vehicle theft cost £5.4 million in 2016, livestock theft £2.9 million, land rover/defender vehicle theft £2.1 million and All-Terrain Vehicles/quad theft £1.8 million. Again there are regional variations – with tractor theft more common in eastern counties and livestock theft more common in Wales.

Back in May 2015 the NRCN launched the largest ever survey into crime and anti-social behaviour in rural areas. The survey called on people living and working in rural areas to give their views on crime and policing in their community and to help shape the future of crime prevention and rural policing. 17,227 people responded. The findings suggest in England and Wales the true cost of crime in rural areas could exceed £800 million – equivalent to £200 for every household in the countryside (with the cost to the victims of crime £2,500 for households and £4,100 for businesses). 39% of respondents to the survey were ‘very’ or ‘fairly worried’ about becoming a victim of crime (compared to 19% nationally). Just 39% of rural dwellers rated the police as good (32.4%) or excellent (6.3%) compared to 53% good and 10% excellent nationally. More than one in four (27% of respondents) did not report the last crime of which they were a victim meaning national figures collated by the Home Office and ONS do not reflect the actual number of crimes in the countryside. The NRCN produced a number of recommendations including reviewing the funding formula used so that the costs of policing in rural areas is recognised; finding ways of encouraging rural communities to report incidents to the police; the police and partners needing to work better together to tackle rural crime; policing to be better targeted in rural areas to take account of vulnerable victims; improve knowledge and embed best practice of tackling crimes in rural areas; and that prevention and response policies are needed that focus on improving protection for rural businesses. The NCRN is now looking to replicate the 2015 survey.

On the one hand, these surveys illuminate a number of factors contributing to the rise in rural crime (e.g. social and economic changes in farming and communities, modern transport links and internationalisation); on the other hand, they signal a number of emerging trends (i.e., that being watched or staked out is one of the biggest concerns for people living in the countryside, ongoing livestock theft is raising concerns that stock is being stolen for slaughter and then illegally entering the food chain, and/or small and older tractors are being targeted to steal and export to developing countries).

For me, this demonstrates how there are particular challenges in the way in which data and information on crime is collected which makes understanding crime in rural areas more difficult. It also reflects a need to more adequately collect data on ‘hidden crime’ such as modern slavery, domestic abuse and hate crime. The NCRN is currently commissioning a piece of research to develop a comprehensive understanding of the barriers to victims of domestic abuse in rural areas seeking support and the specific impact of rurality on outcomes for victims.

Secondly, with the increasing quantity and complexity of crimes, how is the police workforce responding? What different/new ways of working are emerging – and how ‘visible’ are these in rural areas?

The College of Policing demand analysis report reveals on a typical day in a typical force there is approximately one officer on duty for every 1,753 people living in the force area – with officers responding to 14 incidents with people with mental health issues, 9 road traffic collisions, carrying out 37 stop and searches, responding to 12 missing persons reports, dealing with 101 anti-social behaviour incidents, 8 dwelling burglaries, 77 thefts, 36 violent crimes, and making up to 50 arrests. In a typical force on a typical day 338 emergency 999 calls will be received, 709 incidents will be recorded and 150 crimes will be reported. These figures take into account ‘public demand’ i.e., calls for service or incidents to which the police respond, and ‘protective demand’ i.e., work connected to safeguarding the public. However, different forces will experience different levels of demand – with more than 50% of recorded crime occurring in urban, or mostly urban, forces. What resource is being deployed to tackle the reactive and proactive work the police undertake?

According to the Police and Crime Commissioners Treasurers’ Society (PACCTS), National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC), at March 2016 there were 126,000 full-time equivalent police officers, a reduction of 3,200 (or 2.5%) over the previous year. This was the largest single fall since 2012-2013 and a 23% reduction in officer numbers since 2009-2010. The equivalent figure for PCSOs is an 11% reduction in 2015-2016 and a 35% reduction since 2009-2010. At the same time the population of England and Wales has increased – meaning the ratio of population per officer has increased from 387.5 in 2010 to 466.7 in 2015, an increase of 20%. Again there are regional variations here – with the major centres of population having a greater rate of police officers per 100,000 head of population: with the Metropolitan, Merseyside and West Midlands police forces having the highest ratio of police officers to civilians. A recent survey of PCCs and police forces predicts further reductions in staffing between 2016 and 2019 of some 902 police officers, 4,256 police staff and 395 PCSOs.

In May 2017 the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) produced a briefing note on police workforce in England and Wales. This reveals the number of police officers peaked in England in Wales (some 143,800 officers) and reduced by 14% by 2017 (to 123,100 officers). Police staff (i.e., non-officers) has fallen at a faster rate leading to the total police workforce to stand at less than 200,000.

Figures on Police Workforce from the Home Office show and Office for National Statistics (ONS) for the year ending 31 March 2017, 7,526 FTE police officers were recruited (up from 4,735 in the previous year) but the number of police officers leaving the service was 8,569 (up from 7,701 in the previous year).

As of March 2017 some 2,424 police officers were on long-term sick leave compared to 2,488 at the same point in 2016 – despite the fall police forces have reported an increase in the number of officers on sick leave as a result of mental health problems.

In an international context, out of 34 nations where data was available, in 2014 England Wales ranked 28th for the number of police officers per 100,000 head of population. Northern Ireland was ranked 11th and Scotland 19th. Montenegro was ranked 1st with almost 800 officers per 100,000 population, followed by Serbia and Cyprus. Norway, Finland and Hungary were ranked 32nd, 33rd and 34th respectively, all having less than 200 officers per 100,000 head of population. It is worth noting that police forces are organised differently in other countries and the policing duties carried out by officers and staff will also vary.

However, regardless of the figures used, the trend appears to be one of falling police officer numbers in England and Wales.

Demands on the police can be grouped around ‘public demand’ (calls for service or incidents to which the police respond), ‘protective demand’ (safeguarding the public) and ‘preventive work’ (which can reduce crime and public initiative demand on the police). Data from the College of Policing shows the number of emergency 999 calls has decreased by 23% since their peak in 2006-2007. The Police Objective Analysis (POA) – a measurement of the policing frontline – shows as of March 2017, there were 105,571 police officers in frontline roles – a decline of 14.4% since 2010 and a drop of 0.8% since 2016. When broken down by crime type, the numbers of crimes per officer has increased for more serious and more complex to investigate crimes. Using estimates of police activity cost for specific crime categories reveals these more complex crimes take up a greater proportion of police recorded crime and are more costly to investigate. Rape offences, for example, have increased by 36% over the last 10 years and their contribution to the cost of crime has increased from 6% to 12%.

In July 2017 Ipsos MORI published its report on public views of policing in England and Wales 2016-2017. Intended to provide insights into current perceptions of crime, safety and local policing, the survey is based on a sample of 16,865 people aged 16+ years across England and Wales who took part in a survey between July and August 2016. Police visibility was cited as important by the majority of respondents – and related strongly to broader perceptions of policing and public safety. 83% of respondents thought it was ‘very’ or ‘fairly important’ to have a regular uniformed police presence in their local area yet only 24% were satisfied with levels of presence in their area. The survey also reveals a reduction in the proportion of people saying they have seen a uniformed police presence on foot or in a vehicle at least once a month since the last survey (with 19% saying they have seen a police office on foot, down from 26%; and 42% in a vehicle, down from 48%). When asked directly whether the uniformed police presence had gone up, down or stayed around the same, 33% felt it has gone down (particularly older or disabled respondents) while 5% thought it had gone up in the past 12 months.

Public perception, therefore, is that the number of ‘bobbies on the beat’ is declining and that the police are no longer ‘highly visible’ in their community.

PEEL 2016 found all police forces in England and Wales allocate some resources to the prevention of crime and anti-social behaviour, through neighbourhood or local policing teams. They found different models operating in different forces, with rural area neighbourhood policing teams likely to be a mix of preventative and proactive roles and focused on emergency response as they will be the closest people to the incident. Similarly, police forces closely cooperate with other public services to keep communities safe. But as other public services have faced funding and staffing reductions, the pressure on police forces to respond has increased – leading some officers to attend incidents involving people with mental health problems – and leading HMICFRS to reflect how the police cannot continue to fill the gaps left by other agencies in its latest annual report.

As police forces become the ‘first’ and ‘last resort’, how can we improve our understanding and measure police officer and staff workloads and activities? How could this lead us to consider where the police could do more or less (in rural areas), help us better plan for the future and better support the police workforce?

Thirdly, how much money is spent on policing, where does it come from and is it enough?

Police and Crime Commissioners receive funding from central Government, council tax precepts and income from activities such as policing major sporting events which they then distribute to police forces and to other crime reduction initiatives.

The Home Office produces an annual report setting out the aggregate amounts of grants for the police in England and Wales. The needs formula used to calculate funding is based on the different activities that the police undertake (e.g. crime, incidents, traffic, fear of crime and special events); a basic amount per resident and a basic amount for special events. This is then topped-up according to five areas which include sparsity (to address the specific needs of rural forces) and area costs (which take account of regional differences in costs). The latest report, published in February 2017, details the aggregate amount of grants allocated to each local policing body. England and Wales does not have a single police force, rather a series of 43 forces loosely based on a county structure. For 2017-2018 the sums available vary from £1,708,419,427 to Greater London to £32,860,993 to Dyfed-Powys with the cumulative amount of grant for all local policing bodies amounting to some £7,324,892,843.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for finance, Chief Constable Dave Thompson, describes how numbers do not tell the full story as the police have the advantage of different powers, tactics, technology, specialist staff and PCSOs. However, the current flat cash settlement for policing means force budgets are falling in real terms. Taking into account inflation and cost pressures there will be less money every year for forces on top of real terms cuts of 18% since 2010. He describes a situation of forces using reserves to maintain current staff numbers which, when spent, will see numbers falling. He sets out three areas where police forces need to make a difference. Firstly, the funding forces receive needs to be stabilised with real terms protection for policing as a whole. Secondly, the money forces have needs to be spent more effectively (e.g. changing the way forces deliver forensics, armed policing, surveillance and major investigations by making them more affordable). And thirdly, targeted increases in Government spending to help forces tackle the threats police forces face.

Yet in her address to the National Police Chiefs Council and Association of Police and Crime Commissioners annual summit on 1 November 2017, the Home Secretary, the Rt Hon Amber Rudd MP, described how “police-recorded crime has gone up by 13% this past year. This reflects continued improvements in crime recording and an increased willingness of victims to report crime…But behind these national rises are huge local variations…Local policing can make a difference…And since 2015 we’ve protected the total amount of spending that goes to policing in line with inflation. That means that overall police spending is increasing from £11.4 billion in 2015 to 2016 to around £12.3 billion in 2019 to 2020…I know a number of you have been calling for more money on top of this…But police reserves now amount to more than £1.6 billion and the independent inspectorate remains clear that there is more forces can do to transform, with greater efficiencies still available.”

Back in June 2015 the National Audit Office published its report on the financial sustainability of police forces in England and Wales. This found £12.8 billion was spent in 2014-2015 by all 43 police forces in England and Wales; these forces had faced a 25% real terms reduction in central government funding to police and crime commissioners from between 2010-2011 and 2015-2016 and there had been a reduction in the size of the police force of 36,672 between March 2010 and September 2014. The NAO examined whether the Home Office and other policing stakeholders were effectively managing the risks associated with reduced police funding. They found, taking into account changes in central and local Government funding, total funding to individual forces had reduced by between 12% and 23% since 2010-2011. They concluded that the Home Office’s current funding approach does not consider the circumstances of individual forces – applying the same percentage funding reduction to all forces. Police forces had reported they had been required to make £2.5 billion of savings between 2011-2012 and 2014-2015, with forces estimating they would need to make an extra £656 million of savings in 2015-2016. The NAO found the Home Office had insufficient information to determine how much further it can reduce funding without degrading services, or when it may need to support individual forces. The NAO recommended the Home Office adopt an approach to funding that takes account of forces’ local circumstances more fairly.

In 2016 the National Rural Crime Network commissioned the University of Plymouth to consider the funding needs of rural forces in light of rural demands and as part of a wider call that the complex and varied demands on police officers and budgets in different areas and contexts should be taken into account to ensure fair funding. The report found crime statistics to be heavily biased by volume crimes and this relates closely to urban deprivation skewing funding towards urban areas; that rural police forces have higher rates of non-crimes such as Road Traffic Incidents (RTSs) than urban forces and lower support service resources to respond to mental health incidents; that non-staff costs are higher in rural police forces which cannot benefit from economies of scale (this equates to some £32.1 million across the 10 smallest police forces by population size); rural police forces have higher round-trip distances and lower officer numbers increasing the ‘burden per officer’ by up to 65%; rural police force areas with National Parks and/or coastal areas experience seasonal variations; and that rural police forces experience greater responsibility for other services because they often have to deal with service provision out of hours or in isolated areas (e.g. mental health, dementia, missing persons).

The Government has previously consulted on proposals for new funding arrangements for police forces in England and Wales. It was generally accepted that the existing formula is no longer appropriate and the Government wants to replace the existing funding formula with a simplified formula. However, following statistical errors having been discovered in the funding proposals, the Government decided to delay changes to police funding for 2016-2017 and subsequent announcements are now awaited. What might the rural gains and losses be from any change to police funding?

It is also worth noting that police forces assist national Government, Local Authorities and other bodies in achieving their objectives (e.g. community safety, protecting vulnerable individuals, thriving local economy); how might we measure the benefits the police bring to rural communities and economies through their involvement in social and economic development initiatives? How do other public services and bodies benefit from police services and how might this lead to new cross-sector and cross-organisational approaches to resourcing?

Fourthly and finally, what is being done to combat rural crime?

Some police forces have rural taskforces, and at local levels support initiatives such as farmwatch and countrywatch schemes, produce prevention booklets or have rural and wildlife strategies, which all assist in encouraging vigilance and information sharing between the police and rural communities. At a national level the NCRN publishes a range of best practicecase studies, NFU Mutual funds a number of police initiatives (including ‘ewe hostels’) and provides practical help to farmers, there is a national policing lead for rural affairs and mechanisms for reporting information about rural crime (e.g. Crimestoppers). How can we build on these initiatives which aim to improve engagement with rural dwellers, provide enforcement against those committing rural crime and prevent rural crime from happening in the first place?How can rural communities better work with the police and partners to identify gaps in provision and further develop solutions that are bespoke to rural places?

While police recorded crime and incidents had been decreasing, the trend is now one of increasing crime and incidents. Yet official statistics do not always capture the many and varied types of work police officers and staff undertake – especially in rural areas – from fulfilling their statutory duties to the preventive work they undertake or the assistance they provide to other public services. Police officer numbers have been decreasing and budgets falling at the same time as the average cost of investigating and solving crimes are increasing.

If Policing Vision 2025 aims to ensure any pooling of specialist services through cross-force or hub structures does not risk capabilities being drawn to urban areas at the detriment to rural areas; how can we ensure rural policing does not fall off the edge of the agenda? If the Vision is focused on prevention and vulnerability what kind of policing is needed to support this in rural areas – and how can Local Authorities, rural communities and businesses continue to work with police forces and PCCs to deliver this?


Jessica is a researcher/project manager at Rose Regeneration; an economic development business working with communities, Government and business to help them achieve their full potential. Her current work includes supporting a Lottery programme to help people into paid work; research for the NHS on rural workforce recruitment and retention issues and supporting a community rail partnership. Jessica can be contacted by email or telephone 01522 521211. Website: Blog: Twitter: @RoseRegen


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