Bedfordshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Kathryn Holloway, held a public meeting in Dunstable, joined by Chief Constable Jon Boutcher and leaders of Community Policing, to give a voice to local people over crime levels in the town as part of her bid to put the realities of the stretched county frontline before Government.
The meeting was held at Dunstable Community Fire Station in Brewer’s Lane on Wednesday night (22 August) and was full to capacity.
“There’s no doubt that it was a raw meeting but it was important to make sure that residents had a chance to tell the police exactly what they’re experiencing as a result of crime and the most stretched frontline in British policing, which is why I arranged it. I give them an absolute assurance that I will make sure that the views they expressed are taken right to the top of Government. The Policing Minister, Nick Hurd, gets this but the Home Office is not a protected department and he needs weight against the Treasury door. Meetings like this allow me to provide it,” said the Commissioner.
“We can’t sit at HQ and simply review crime figures, we need to hear people’s real experiences and I know the Chief is absolutely committed to do everything in his power to try to address the most pressing and acute concerns that were raised. In fact, just the next day he had not only held a planning meeting to that end at the most senior level at Bedfordshire Police but had arranged to visit residents in person that night. This is not the sign of a Chief Constable, or Force, that is not listening,” she said.
She told the meeting, after accompanying one of the Community Hub officers for the town just two days earlier: “Dunstable presents some serious challenges to policing, with areas of social deprivation backing directly onto the South Downs so criminals literally make for the hills when pursued by police; the busway offers cover to ferry those who want to deal drugs in and out of the town and a multitude of footpaths, bridle paths and woodland areas are used as getaways; the quarry has been targeted by nuisance bikers and those who burn out cars, and the Spoondale area contains some of the most poorly designed social housing I’ve had the misfortune to witness, given the warren of alleys allowing individuals to escape as they see police coming.”
However, the PCC also pointed to effective work by the police's Community Hub team to tackle some of these issues, working with partners such as the local authority to use a combination of their civil and criminal powers wherever possible.
"Working with Central Bedfordshire Council, its mobile CCTV cameras have been moved into hotspots of anti-social behaviour (ASB), notably Spoondale, which has been a focus of activity for the council's wardens as well as the police Community Team. Core offenders, responsible for ASB, have been targeted with relevant community protection orders and their parents have been warned that they genuinely risk losing their homes if their children’s behaviour is allowed to continue.”
A member of the audience, herself a child worker, confirmed this work is taking place and is having an effect, in her professional view. Work has also been completed to provide raised earthworks to cut off some footpaths for 4x4s and quad bikes and an entrance to the quarry has been sealed off to prevent access for vehicles, later burned out by vandals.
Chief Constable Jon Boutcher confirmed that “the police cannot do this on their own.” He welcomed the comments from the audience and took as many as possible within the meeting, speaking one to one with many residents afterwards. He also committed Bedfordshire Police to producing a plan for the town.
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Boutcher said: “It is vital that we hear the experiences of residents in Dunstable. I am acutely aware of their frustrations and concerns and utterly appreciate their position.
“There is a wider issue around how many cops we have to deal with the ever increasing demand that we are experiencing. I want my officers to attend every call for help quickly and sort the problems the community are experiencing. The core problem here for the longer term is funding which impacts the number of officers we have available to police our communities – however, notwithstanding that, there are clearly ongoing issues here that I’m committed to tackling.
“We will be increasing our presence across Dunstable, Houghton Regis and Leighton Buzzard over the coming weeks in a coordinated approach to tackle the criminality which was raised at the meeting. We are also looking at a longer, sustainable solution to tackle these problems and reassure people living in this area of Bedfordshire.
“We have to do so much more today than we did yesterday and we have less to do it with. There needs to be a public debate on policing and the numbers that we have against the widening issues that we have to deal with. I am very much up for that debate. I can reassure everyone that the men and women of this force are incredibly hard-working and do the very best they can day-in and day-out to keep people safe.”
The meeting also allowed the PCC and Chief Constable the opportunity to dispel rumours. They confirmed the Community Policing Hub of officers is based at Dunstable police station, which also offers an emergency response service for the town, augmented by that in Luton.
But neither the Commissioner nor the Chief Constable ducked the issue of the acute strain on Bedfordshire Police as a result of its budget, which is among the lowest in policing and also for council tax receipts, given the comparatively low number of Band D households and above in the county.
“Neither of us is going to try to hide the fact that there is a substantial gulf between the level of policing that we are able to provide full time for the residents of Dunstable and those elsewhere. I have fought tooth and claw for over two years to land the evidence with Government that this force is beyond full stretch and needs more cash to fund more officers on the ground. Every one of the residents who attended this meeting is on the same side as the Chief Constable and I as we all need precisely that to provide the level of service that Mr Boutcher and I want to deliver,” she said.
Ideas from the meeting will now be taken forward.
Commissioner Holloway said: “What matters is that this was not just an opportunity to vent frustrations but to produce solutions; residents suggested a petition for the Home Office and Treasury which my office will now take forward to survey and present their views and experience of crime, and a WhatsApp group to connect the force with them. The force has already committed, through my key Strategic Board which holds the Chief Constable to account each month, to creating Community Surgeries on a monthly basis held by the county’s Community Hub Teams to pick up on crime intelligence and act on it and to continuously provide residents with a voice to communicate with Bedfordshire Police. The Chief said we need to reconnect with our communities and that’s exactly what this is designed to achieve.”