The closing of police stations across the UK has caused communities to voice concern for several years. There are no official figures showing the number of police station closures nationally. However, estimates suggest that around 600 police stations across England and Wales were shut between 2010 and 2018. In a recent debate on Rural Crime and Public Services, Louise Haigh MP, Shadow Minister for Policing, said nearly 400 stations had closed in England and Wales and counters open to the public to report crimes fell from more than 900 in 2010 to just over 500 today.
This Insight looks at why police stations are closing and what impact this is having on community-police relations.
What counts as a police station?
Police stations can vary substantially, both in size and the level of service provided. Some will have one or several custody suites, while others might offer a counter where members of the public can report crime, alongside offices and break rooms for officers. Closing a police counter can impact how safe a community might feel. Closing or reducing custody suites might mean that suspects will have to be transported further before being questioned or charged, thereby incurring longer hours and stress on both the suspect and police officers involved.
Why are police stations closing?
Police forces cite budget pressures as the reason for station closures. A 2018 Public Accounts Committee report found that, “forces are selling off more of their assets to try and raise some funds for capital investment and increasingly drawing on their reserves.”
Whilst budgetary pressures may be the main reason police chiefs say they are closing stations, they also point to changes in public behaviour. Developments in technology mean that people can report non-urgent problems online or via phone and are often choosing to do so instead of reporting crimes at a police counter. The London Mayor’s Office for Police and Crime has noted that the number of people who reported a crime at a police counter was down by 22% between 2016 and 2006.
What is the public reaction to the closures?
Many people have opposed the closure of police counters and the perceived reduction of police presence in communities more broadly. As George Howarth MP said in a recent debate on Merseyside police funding, the public is concerned about the disappearance of physical police counters in their local communities.
In a recent debate on knife crime, John Cryer MP spoke of the impact that the closure of police stations has had in his constituency of Leyton and Wanstead:
“When I was elected MP for Leyton and Wanstead nearly nine years ago, there were three police stations in my constituency. Now, there are none. Every single one has closed. […] It seems like common sense that if a police unit has to come from Ilford—which is quite a long way away—rather than Wanstead itself, burglars are going to work out that that is the case. We have therefore seen a rise in aggravated burglary rates in Romford, with associated violence in many cases.”
In London, almost 1,000 people expressed their opposition to the Mayor’s plans to close police stations by signing a petition. Elsewhere in the country a petition led by Dame Caroline Spelman MP, to keep Solihull Police Station open, received more than 4,000 signatures.
Decision to close Wimbledon police station found unlawful
Previous closures of police stations have shown that a sound public consultation is important in securing public confidence in the decisions. A victim of a violent burglary succeeded in overturning the decision to close Wimbledon police station in July 2018. He argued that had the police station not been open, the police wouldn’t have been able to reach him in time. As part of the judgment, Lord Justice Lindblom criticised a consultation run by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime into the closure of many of London’s police stations: Both the content and the structure of the consultation document were unsatisfactory. It was markedly less helpful than such documents should be if they are to achieve their purpose in informing a decision on a matter of great significance for a large number of people.
London Assembly Member Sian Berry commented on the “rushed” decision to close several London police stations:
“Within just three weeks off the back of a rushed consultation the Met have announced barely a single change to their plans to close stations and front counters across London.”
John Apter, National Chair of the Police Federation, the representative body for ‘rank and file’ police officers, argued that removing the physical presence of a police station lowers people’s sense of safety in their neighbourhood:
“What world do we live in where people are now increasingly fearful for their safety? Cuts to frontline policing has resulted in the closure of many police stations across England and Wales along with reductions of neighbourhood officers. Both things key in providing visible reassurance to communities and acting as a deterrent for violent crime.”
Chief Constable Dave Thompson wrote in the National Police Chief’s Council blog:
“Budget cuts and a hands-off government approach to aspects of policing have meant hard choices for chief constables with consequences for the public and our people. The public’s experience is policing that is less visible, less responsive and less proactive.”
What has the Government said?
Central government devolves responsibility of funding allocations to police forces, so that Police and Crime Commissioners (in conjunction with their Chief Constable) are responsible for local policing decisions, including how they meet they use their funding and what estate of police stations they need.
Nick Hurd, Minister for Policing and the Fire Service, has said:
“The Government believes in local policing accountable to local communities. This is why decisions on the number of police stations and their locations are for Chief Constables and directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) and Mayors with PCC functions. They are best placed to make these decisions based on their local knowledge and experience.”
About the author: Alison Pratt is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in Home Affairs.