Thursday, 10 January 2013

"'Ello, 'ello, 'ello!  Would you like a latte while you report your violent street mugging?"

As absurd as it may seem, these could be the very words uttered as you enter ‘Al’s Café’ on Bermondsey Street to report a crime committed within the Borough of Southwark. Although this may seem like a joke taken straight out of a 1960s Carry-On film, this could be the frightening reality of new cost-cutting proposals put forward by the Deputy Mayor for policing at a consultation tonight in City Hall.

Officially, the idea is a new way of improving policing in Southwark and London in general by finding ‘creative solutions and alternatives’: so says Stephen Greenhalgh deputy mayor, who states that no police ‘front counter’ will close unless a suitable alternative has been found. Budget cuts notwithstanding, why close them then? In practise, the ‘Your Police Your Say’ consultation is seriously considering closing three front counters (read ‘police stations’ in your ‘Bermondsey Real English Dictionary’), and replacing them with pop-up sites in cafés, supermarkets and post offices. Imagine for a minute, suffering as a victim of crime at Bermondsey underground station. Instinct and common sense tells you to either call 999, 101 or find the local police station: it does not point you in the direction of ‘Rose’s Café’ on the Dickens Estate. This ridiculous move forms part of a barrage of ‘creative solutions’ that range from the sublime to the plain ridiculous!

‘Creative solution’ number one: Reducing spending by 20%.
How can one reduce Borough police spending by 20%, and at the same time ‘cut 7 priority crimes by 20%’? As one local secondary school teacher put it, “The local gangs must be rubbing their hands together thinking ‘It’s Christmas’!”.

'Creative solution' number two: Close three police stations.

Quite frankly, this is absolute balderdash!  The good old fashioned British police station is more than a building. Southwark’s six stations are for many akin to beacons of hope, safety and security. They tell us where to go when we need help. The psychological effect on the community of removing three stations cannot be measured. Interestingly, the Mayor’s office for policing and crime believes that the package of proposals will ‘boost public confidence by 20%’. Can someone explain this, please?

‘Creative solution’ number three: Providing the entire Borough of Southwark with two extra officers by 2015.

The Mayor plans to deploy 1200 more officers in all London boroughs, so why only two for Southwark? As areas bordering Bermondsey such as Camberwell and Peckham are particular crime hotspots, how does this ‘solution’ achieve the plan’s objectives of being ‘visible’ and ‘accessible’?

The consultation was not a consultation by the standards of ordinary Bermondsey folk: the decisions have already been made. This was a farce, a box-ticking exercise, by politicians and officers who value their jobs more than their principles. Did the three local MPs, who are paid to speak against such nonsense, express concisely and directly their opposition to the plans?  You bet they didn't.  And, how did the illustrious parade of councillors fare in standing up for a better Bermondsey?  You guessed it, they rambled-on with the classic 'I've got three points' statements, none of which were memorable, all of which might as well have agreed with the plans.  This was an outright middle-class-muck-about, where backs are slapped and politicians and residents alike acquiesce in a dangerous destruction of a well-loved institution.

So, the deputy mayor got his way.   Not unusually for a politician, he became quite dismissive and did not address directly the views of local people. It’s as though he thought that this was not the place for hearing the views of local residents who oppose what he had to say. After the meeting, Mr Greenhalgh was heard to accuse a local resident of 'being difficult and causing problems' for merely expressing a view!  Local politicians had more to say than local residents, which is worrying: perhaps this is because the meeting was so poorly advertised. If you want to hear the views of real Bermondsey residents, sometimes you have to employ 'creative solutions' to find and then listen to them. Where was the bulldog Bermondsey spirit?  Walled-up at home, caring for the children, that's where it was!  It didn't help matters that residents had to register online to attend, and stay out so late.

What are the real solutions? Well, policing matters are for the police to address without budget cuts framing the discussion of ideas and solutions, but here are a few ideas:
1. Put the proposals to the test as part of a local referendum
2. The deputy mayor could start by knocking on the doors of local Bermondsey residents to find out whether they agree with his proposals. Bermondsey folk are quite honest and direct: I suspect that he would not really want to hear what they had to say.
3. The ‘consultation’ could be taken to the people in schools, colleges, community halls, youth centres, shopping precincts and tenants and residents halls. One of the most interesting comments came from a local teenager living near the Aylesbury Estate, who expressed concerns about policing in the area and a fear that the proposals will do nothing to foster a sense of security in his area.

4. The proposals could at least be honest in saying that the ‘reorganisation’ and station closures are due to cuts, rather than fresh, new ideas with the sole purpose of improving policing. The aforementioned teenager expressed a widely shared view that nothing will change because nothing ever does.
5. More police officers have to be part of the solution – two would be perfect for Bishopbriggs in East Dunbartonshire, but is woefully inadequate for inner-London Bermondsey.

6. Advertising for officers and special constables from ethnic-minority communities, so that the police service reflects accurately the local population. This was a view expressed by MP Harriet Harman and is one that makes sense.

7. Maintaining the ‘front counters’ in all six borough stations and taking the police presence to the people, e.g. by setting up road shows and events in prominent public places including schools and colleges

8. And, if it does all come down to cuts, perhaps the deputy mayor could argue for an increase in the council tax precept to offset the 20% budget cuts: now that is a policy that people might pay for.

Bermondsey residents are proud to live in such a vibrant part of London.  We want our politicians to be open and honest with us, rather than pretend to listen to our views and then go ahead and do what they want anyway.  We are proud of our country, our community, our area and our police force.  We want the police to continue to keep us safe: these proposals threaten this.

I'm of to Al's Cafe tomorrow: his fish and chip suppers are to die for!

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