A council tax increase of 7.8 per cent proposed by Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne has been backed by a scrutiny group today (Friday January 19).
The precept rise, which equates to an extra £12 a year for a Band D property, was supported by the Sussex Police and Crime Panel by a margin of 11 votes to seven.
According to Mrs Bourne the decision to ask for extra funding will help protect around 480 police officer and staff posts, while highlighting the rising demand on the police service and the increasingly complicated nature of criminal investigations.
She argued that residents were prepared to support the force through increased council tax contributions as they wanted to see investment in visible local policing and improvements to the public’s contact with police.
She said: “This for us is a real game-changer when it comes to looking at funding our policing services across the county.
“This is not a decision I have taken lightly but I believe it’s the right one to protect 480 police officer and staff jobs, sustain our local policing and make sure the chief constable puts these resources in the areas the public tells me that matters to them.”
Lib Dem John Ungar asked the panel to defer the precept increase so the commissioner could come back with more information, but was told they either had to vote to support or veto the proposals.
He said: “I think we should take the middle path and ask the commissioner to come back with proposals that inform us fully so we can take a proper balanced view.”
A proposal to veto the precept increase was defeated by seven votes to 11.
At the start of the meeting, members of the precept working group expressed ‘frustration’ at the late change in the proposed council tax increase prompted by the Government’s decision to increase the cap from £5 to £12.
Christian Mitchell, vice-chair of the panel, said they could come up with a method for next year so the working group ‘can be most effective’.
Mrs Bourne explained how the county had the fifth lowest precept for a PCC area across England & Wales, along with the seventh lowest total funding per head of population from central Government.
Sussex Police has had to save £88m since 2010, and would have faced a £26.5m budget gap between now and 2022 without the use of reserves agreed last year and the extra funding from a higher council tax increase.
Mr Ungar asked for assurances the precept increase would see the ‘return of community policing’.
In response Mrs Bourne pointed to the Medium term Financial Strategy which describes how the ‘ability to sustain local policing and help meet ever changing demand levels in local policing will be supported by the precept uplifts’.
She added: “We talk about the beat, but also bearing in mind the beat is not just a physical one, there is a digital one as well.”
Labour’s Emma Daniel described it as ‘alarming’ the public was being asked to take a ‘punt’ on a ‘vague concept of local policing without having a plan we have seen yet’.
But Mrs Bourne described how inspectors had found Sussex Police’s local policing model to be robust and scalable so resources can be put into different areas.
The precept increase would mean resources ‘are focused more intently in the areas that matter to local policing’.
She added: “This is about supporting local policing which is what the public have told me they want us to do.”
Mrs Bourne disagreed with the inference that the model was ‘broken’ as they were ‘seeing a real step change in their ability to answer local crime’.
Labour’s Colin Fitzgerald raised concerns that council tax increases were being used to sustain and retain the number of police officers instead of funding more.
He said: “We are in danger of presiding over a crisis in confidence of our local policing.”
Fellow Labour panel member Michael Jones added: “I’m really concerned about the overall burden that’s being placed on council taxpayers.”
He asked what they would be getting for the £12 increase and questioned if they were giving the PCC a ‘blank cheque’.
Mrs Bourne explained how she would continue to lobby central Government for more funding while the chief constable had not asked for the extra funding from council taxpayers ‘lightly’.
Lib Dem Carolyn Lambert asked if a cost-reduction exercise could be carried out for the PCC’s office.
Mrs Bourne described how she had taken on extra responsibilities, but her office staff were working on delivering efficiency savings.
She also pointed out how her £85,000 a year salary had not changed since she was first elected in 2012.
After the meeting panel chairman Bill Bentley said: “The panel was thorough in its challenge of the commissioner’s proposals given the burden a 7.8 per cent increase would put on residents.
“But we recognise that without the additional income residents would see a significant reduction in frontline officers over the next four years – something the public, along with members of the panel, have been quite clear in opposing.”
Mrs Bourne added: ““The Government has since made it clear that an increasing proportion of policing costs will have to be met by local council taxpayers.
“This is part of an evolving model of fiscal devolution which local authorities are also experiencing.
“Police and Crime Commissioners had previously lobbied for the Government to lift the cap on the police precept, and this has now been allowed in the grant announcement which is why I am able to increase the precept in Sussex by £12.”
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