We must let our police make the streets safer again

One morning during the last general election campaign, I knocked on the door of a local police station. Several police cars were parked outside. Eventually an astonished police officer opened the door to tell me that the station was no longer open to the public.

The closure of police stations is emblematic of the withdrawal of the police from the public. We are told that officer numbers are at record levels, but where are they? Vast amounts of police time are spent in stations, officers are more often working on paperwork than on patrol, and less than a tenth of officers are dedicated to neighbourhood policing.

As with other public services, the police are bedevilled with national directives, interference and the bureaucracy created by central intervention. Crude detection targets encouraged one officer near my constituency, on finding a knife in the pocket of a body hanging from a tree, to record a crime of possessing an offensive weapon. Political correctness resulted in another force refusing to issue "wanted" posters of escaped murderers for fear of infringing their human rights. It is no surprise that the gulf between the police and public is growing.

A recent survey for the TaxPayers' Alliance found that most people cannot name a single local police officer and believe that forces prefer to focus on easy targets such as speeding motorists rather than anti-social behaviour and local crime. Less than a quarter of the public think that policing in their area has improved, and fewer than half think that increases in council tax to pay for local policing have been good value for money.

For decades, an expert wisdom prevailed, not only that high crime was inevitable, but that policing could do little to prevent it. Today such fatalism, which was never accepted by the public, has been debunked. When more police were put on the streets of central London after 7/7, crime fell. The success of New York City's reductions in crime in the 1990s demonstrates that good policing, which accounted for half of the 75 per cent reduction in crime in a decade, can make our streets safer.

The lessons of New York are important ones. Better police performance was achieved by a combination of factors: a significant increase in police numbers on the streets, robust community policing and powerful reforms to enhance the accountability of managers. The changes were driven by an elected mayor who answered to the people, and an inspirational police chief who innovated and led his force.

Today, the British police face the twin challenges of rebuilding community policing to tackle low-level crime and anti-social behaviour, while at the same time strengthening the fight against serious crime and terrorism. Yet the Government seems incapable of providing the strategic leadership needed.

Since the collapse of its ill-judged proposal to merge forces, the Home Office has been at sea on police policy. It has cut back initiatives that would have had the most direct impact on providing a better service to the public, such as neighbourhood policing and the promised 101 non-emergency number. And it has provided little impetus on programmes such as sharing services, the development of police information technology or workforce modernisation - all crucial to delivering value for money.

Today, the Conservative Party publishes a policy document, Policing for the People, proposing four key reforms.

First, the structure of the police must enable them to fight serious crime while enhancing and sustaining community policing. At the very least, this will require far more effective co-operation between forces than has happened so far.

Second, the complexity and demands of modern policing require a professional workforce that is flexible, well trained and highly motivated. Pay should reflect team performance. Talented people should be able to enter directly into senior ranks and a military-style senior staff college should prepare the police leaders of tomorrow.

Third, the police's hands must be freed to give them the discretion they need and to release officers for front-line duties. Unnecessary forms should be scrapped and antiquated computer systems joined up to eliminate the multiple keying of data - a major impediment to efficiency. Central direction and targets should be replaced by locally accountable leadership and priority setting. Civilian staff or the private sector should be employed to do jobs that sworn officers do not need to do, and the police "family" should be extended, for instance through a new cadre of police reservists.

Fourth, the police must be made properly accountable, rewarding activity that delivers a better service, not the kind that keeps officers busy and ticks boxes. The quid pro quo for reducing central intervention is strongly enhanced local accountability. Directly elected police commissioners should replace invisible police authorities, with a brief to drive down crime. Communities should have a "right to policing" through regular beat meetings with local police officers, control of community safety budgets and access to independently produced information about crime. A revamped and truly independent inspectorate should monitor standards and value for money.

These proposals offer a better future for both police and public alike. The police will be released to do the job they want to do. Central interference will be minimised, professional discretion will be restored and committed officers will be rewarded for their success. The public will benefit from localised policing that is more responsive to their concerns, giving them a real voice and control to ensure the safety of their communities. Police officers will be returned to the streets where people want to see them.

The police cannot fight crime alone. A more effective criminal justice system and social action will also matter. But the police are a vital link in the chain of justice, consuming two thirds of law and order spending. Their performance over the next decade will be essential in improving the quality of life of millions of citizens.

The founder of modern policing, Sir Robert Peel, famously said: "The police are the public and the public are the police." Police forces grew out of the localities. Restoring the accountability of the police to local communities will be an important counterbalance to the areas where more effective national co-ordination of policing will be required, such as in the fight against serious crime.

Above all, it will be an essential step towards rebuilding the bridge between the police and the public - and delivering lasting reductions in crime.

Michelle Taylor