Jay Singh-Sohal is a strategic communications director at M&C Saatchi and Army Reserve Captain. He was the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands in 2021.
We enter 2023 with a spring in our step in the West Midlands, having had a hugely successful 12 months with notable successes including the Commonwealth Games, firms such as Aviva moving to Birmingham, Legal and General’s £4 billion investment into regenerating housing, and Britishvolts £200 million investment into local battery technology and manufacture.
Whilst the former is being addressed with active training and skills programmes through the West Midlands Combined Authority led by our mayor Andy Street, the latter requires synergies from the Mayoral remit into policing leadership to make any impact. This is because youth offences are one of a number of crimes that have increased significantly over the past decade we have had a Labour Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC). The most recent figures on total crime, up to June 2022, show an alarming 22 per cent increase from the year before.
As the previous Conservative West Midlands PCC candidate, I campaigned for 18 months to bring leadership to the region’s role overseeing policing, to make it more effective on what should be its sole focus to get crime down, and to cut bureaucracy and waste to ensure taxpayer value for money. That is why I am now calling for the government to merge the role of our region’s PCC into the Mayoralty in order to unleash the full potential of the West Midlands to improve people’s lives.
A merger would help those most vulnerable and adversely affected by crime to benefit from the opportunities being created across our seven growing and thriving metropolitan boroughs. It is crucial if we are to create the synergies needed to implement sound strategies and effective public policies that improve people’s lives and to deliver better value for money for local taxpayers.
The abilities of “Metro Mayor’s” to “lean in” on issues causing crime in their areas can already be seen in Greater London, Greater Manchester, and West Yorkshire where, regardless of whether we agree with Labour’s approach, their Mayor’s have responsibilities over policing. They can pull on wider levers of decision-making, funding, and support, for a joined-up approach towards tackling criminality, be it to penalise criminals, protect victims, or the potentially vulnerable or “upstream” on issues such as poverty or lack of jobs, that lead to criminal behaviours.
The West Midlands is anomalous, the separation of policing from the Mayoralty puts us below par in both leveraging the widest array of policy levers possible to tackle crime, as well as competing for resources from government to ensure our police service is properly resourced to meet the challenges of a diverse region of three million residents, including inner-city Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton.
This detachment is a product of the Coalition years and no longer suitable for the West Midlands where in a competitive post-Brexit world the region’s Mayor has a greater role to play locally (through functional powers of competence to implement policies on housing, transport, employment, and training) as well as nationally and internationally as a standard-bearer for the West Midlands. Street does a brilliant job as our champion on all three platforms in showcasing our region as one worth living in, working in, visiting and investing.
The proof of the failures of the current disunity of powers can be found in the governance over policing – over the past ten years Labour PCCs have controversially politicised the role. We have had every possible outrage, from woke £100,000 Inclusivity jobs, to the new PCC taking the knee for Black Lives Matter, to the appointment of two Labour-activist Assistant PCCs in a role that’s meant to be politically restricted. The PCC shirks his responsibility to tackle local issues and instead plays the blame game by pointing the finger at the government for his own lack of effectiveness.
The latest PEEL (Police Effectiveness, Efficiency and Legitimacy) report published by HM Inspectorate of Constabularies in 2021/22 even graded WMP as requiring improvement in what are basic expectations of any force – of providing a service to victims of crime, investigating crime, and protecting vulnerable people. Failures that continue to be unaddressed by an ineffective and anonymous PCC, WMP is now the worst in the country for answering 999 calls.
Merging the PCCs office into the Mayoralty would ensure better leadership in setting policing direction, enable the West Midlands Combined Authority (which includes council leaders and the heads of Local Enterprise Partnership) to provide more effective and representative oversight of policing decisions and policy, and increase the options in the mayor’s policy arsenal to develop the region by tackling crime.
It would enhance local democracy and accountability by giving powers to set the local police tax precept to the region’s Mayor, enabling the Mayor to negotiate with government over the local policing settlement for the region.
On the local police tax precept, under the region’s Labour PCCs, this has shot up by 104 per cent over the past ten years (from £99.45 in 2012 to £187.55 for 2023/24). Meanwhile, taxpayers’ funds have been wasted on vanity projects such as a £33m refurbishment of Lloyd House Police HQ in central Birmingham (which lies half empty), a bloated Office of PCC with a budget of nearly £9m, and unnecessary bureaucracy in a “Strategic Board” which costs half-a-million a year to run. The waste goes unchecked as the PCCs budget does not face greater public scrutiny. Having our Mayor undertake these functions will ensure more scrutiny over budgets and accountability of public funds through the focal point of the region’s top elected representative.
Next, the West Midlands typically loses out in funding from the government’s Police Grant Settlement due to the way the formula is calculated. This presents a deficit in the baseline funding which PCCs have to manage through the force’s £689m budget. Against this, the Labour PCC over-commits in spending plans to give the appearance of a larger cash hole that needs to be plugged. On two occasions, in 2019 and 2020, Street intervened during negotiations to ensure the West Midlands received more funds from the Home Office to tackle rising crime, so the Mayor can do what the PCC has failed to and get the force a better deal by working with Ministers.
From 2024 all PCCs in England and Wales will be given powers of competence and additional responsibilities including over the Fire Service. This is a recipe for disaster in the West Midlands, where the Momentum-backed PCC has been overtly partisan and under-scrutinised by the ineffective local Police and Crime Panel who are far too deferential of him. Further powers would distract the PCC from the core focus of tackling crime and be a tempting over-reach into areas of Mayoral responsibility. Taxpayer funds and resources could easily be diverted away from the frontline, and into woke initiatives and partisan schemes, such as Drug Consumption Rooms which Labour want to trial, as well as activities not related to policing.
For the West Midlands to continue to attract investment, create jobs, retain talent, protect and empower young people and communities, and to grow economically, we must tackle the scourge of crime now and deter criminality in future. The “levelling up” agenda provides the opportunity to reimagine our region for future growth and prosperity, by devolving the powers necessary for our elected Mayor to deliver swiftly and boldly what is needed locally to improve people’s lives.
Coupling those new powers with responsibility over policing will mean the West Midlands stands on a level playing field with other regions where this already happens. It is an evolution we need if we are to deliver a Conservative agenda in the West Midlands.