Details are starting to leak out about proposals for saving money in London’s fire service. Because of cutbacks, the fire service needs to reduce its budget by £65m over the next two years. £40m has already been identified without touching stations and engines but that leaves £25m to still to find. We reported from Mayor’s Question Time (MQT) last week how Labour Assembly Members are convinced that plans for closures are afoot and the BBC has seen an internal document that kicks around just that.
One scenario – that would save £45m, and so is probably a far worse picture than would actually happen – proposes 30 fire engines and 30 stations being taken out of service and the loss of 840 jobs. At MQT Boris Johnson denied knowledge of any specifics, and won’t comment until plans are finalised; he also reiterated the fire brigade’s success in bringing down deaths from fire, which felt like a suggestion that there’s room for what we believe are termed ‘efficiencies’.
Cuts to the police budget are also starting to have an effect. Back at MQT, Boris admitted his election pledge of keeping officer numbers above 32,000 was looking unlikely (the current figure is 31,458) again because of budget cuts. Yet we noted in February that the only reason police numbers were being kept above 32,000 was because the Mayor wangled a one-off £90m grant/bung from the government. At MQT Boris made the point that City Hall will have to keep lobbying the government about the importance of policing in London – but with no election to win and Boris getting up the nose of the Prime Minister, we can’t see George Osborne being keen to stump up the cash. Indeed, someone at Number 10 recently hinted darkly: “we will see what happens the next time he comes around with the begging bowl”.
Of course, the talk about police numbers is largely a red herring. When we interviewed Jenny Jones during the election she made the point that it’s not how many police you have but what you do with them. The Met has had a problem with cutbacks to civilian staff so warranted officers have been having to do admin. Boris wanted to get those police away from desks and onto the beat, but Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe recently told the London Assembly that the force is having to put more uniformed officers into back office jobs because he’s losing even more civilian staff. In effect, the numbers of police are getting fewer and the proportion available to do actual policing is getting smaller as well.
The rationale to having fewer police is similar to that for fire: the crime rate is dropping, so there’s room for efficiencies. However, not all crimes are falling (over the last 12 months, residential burglary, domestic crime and racist/religious hate crime increased, and some boroughs are seeing increases in robbery and burglary in particular). Police station and front desk closures are also being mooted with replacements in libraries and supermarkets being suggested.