Summer of Discontent

Summer of Discontent

If the G20 meeting of world leaders achieved nothing else, it seems to have been the catalyst for a debate around the policing of protest in this country which looks likely to carry on through the summer. This may be seen by some as fortuitous, as forces are gathering which may mean that this year will see the policing of disorder being seriously tested. Why do we say this?

Since the middle of 2008 there have been increasing problems facing the UK and global economies and the beginning of this year started to reveal some of the knock-on effects these problems are having on the average citizen in the UK. History shows how these events have an impact on policing and these issues could be some of the most challenging that the UK police service has faced for many years. Taking the lessons from the past and evaluating current events the following is our analysis of why all of the elements are coming together to make the forthcoming summer of 2009 the ‘summer of unrest’.

What happened to my house?

When the banks in the UK and America started to collapse so did the housing market. This had a knock-on effect with people going into negative equity and this started a vicious circle, where more people default on their mortgage and the banks accrue more ‘toxic debt’. The people in negative equity then find other ways to fund their mortgage, often by borrowing money from loan-sharks and in the worst-case scenario, people have their houses repossessed by the bank.

There are four policing issues that arise from this:-

  • Financial concerns in families lead to an increase in the incidents of domestic disputes and domestic violence.
  • Loan-sharks focus on the vulnerable, often adopting illegal practices.
  • When houses get repossessed, historically there have been increased calls from bailiffs for the police to be present to protect them. There is no reason why this will not continue this time.
  • Due to the downturn in the property market, repossessed houses are not sold quickly and the houses become targets for criminal damage and / or squatters.

This situation will be exacerbated by the difficulties being faced by manufacturers and retailers, which is leading to businesses closing or reducing their staff. This is resulting in a greater number of redundancies than has been seen in this generation. People who are made redundant cannot pay their mortgage and the housing cycle described above starts. Consequently people do not feel secure in their employment and this leads to increasing demands on the police as:-

  • Whenever there is an increase in unemployment there is an increase in crime, particularly dwelling burglaries and benefit fraud.
  • Businesses closing create the same problems as empty houses, namely that the property becomes the target of vandalism.
  • The whole picture of empty houses and shuttered businesses leads to the ‘broken window’ syndrome, where people feel less safe in those areas.

As soon as people feel vulnerable in their employment they come into conflict with management, which can lead to industrial disputes, as seen in the Lindsey oil refinery dispute at the beginning of the year. That particular dispute had an added dimension of racial tension between the British employees and Italian contractors who were brought in to do a task. The last major industrial disputes in this country were in 1984 and 1986, with the miner’s dispute and the printer’s dispute at Wapping respectively. Should the employment situation worsen then there is every possibility that the experience from then will be needed.

Our current society looks for someone to blame for their problems, whether it is the banking executives, the government or society in general. This can lead to increased crime, as the recent attack on Sir Fred Goodwin’s property shows. In other countries it can already be seen that immigrant workers are being targeted as a major part of the problem. When the high unemployment rates increase further elements of society will blame foreign workers causing an increase in racially motivated crime.

We’ve never had it so good

You do not need to be a financier to work out that all of these policing requirements are in a financial context of a country that if it was an organisation, would be bankrupt. A startling prospect, but the comparison is obvious. The outgoings exceed the incomings and, if you relate that to yourself, it means the monthly income no longer covers the bills. The income of the country creates a central pot and there are increasing demands on the central pot that it cannot meet.

We have an ageing demographic, caused by better living conditions and better health care than ever known before. So a smaller percentage of the population is in employment and contributing taxes, whilst the number of people drawing state pensions increases. Add to that the trend towards more unemployment and even fewer people are paying tax and an increasing number are drawing benefits. The taxes pay the benefits, so with less coming in and more going out, anyone can see a gap starting to appear.

The trouble is that we have taken ever improving healthcare for granted for so long that we now see it as a right. Also, added to the increase number of older people needing hospital care, medical treatment has become more sophisticated and expensive, both in terms of money for treatment and drugs as well as care time. This means that every Strategic Health Authority has to find more carers, more hospital beds, more nurses and more doctors, all paid for from the diminishing public purse.

This also has an effect on police budgets, as more police pensioners are living longer and fewer new police officers pay into the pension scheme. Consequently, the percentage of the police budget that is set aside to fill this shortfall is increasing year on year and therefore there is less money to spend on current policing needs.

Other parts of the public sector are also in the spotlight. The government accepts we do not know how many immigrants, whether legal or otherwise, are in the country. Getting control of this is going to cause a drain on the resources of Borders and Immigration. At the same time there is overcrowding in both detention centres and prisons. All of this comes from the same central pot and is becoming increasingly expensive. Should any of these establishments ‘boil over’, guess who are going to receive a telephone call!

With recent increased focus on domestic disputes and child welfare, the social services and probation services have highlighted their increased workloads and under-resourcing and there is no doubt that the government will be asked to provide increased funding.

We all require better services from our local authorities but we object to increases in the council tax. The highways authorities are struggling to maintain the roads and have been hit by the worst cold spell in eighteen years – and aren’t we all quick to complain about the potholes it has left.

This increasing gap in the central pot will impact on all partnerships the police are involved in, where each of the participating members will be looking at increasing demand with diminishing funds.

What’s the result?

Faced with these pressures it is almost easy to feel sorry for the government. This sympathy can be quickly put to one side though, as successive governments have hidden the financial facts from the public and who wouldn’t? It’s not exactly a vote catcher to say that you can no longer fund the public services.

At the moment the central pot is being supported by the largest amount of borrowing that the UK has ever undertaken. Various financial experts disagree whether this is the right course of action but do all agree that it will take years to repay, meaning that this is not going to be a short term downturn.

When all of these pieces of the jig-saw are put together the likelihood of a summer of unrest becomes a reality. The success of meeting all of these complex demands is going to depend on the fast development of strategies. The recognition of all staff that flexibility will be paramount leads to the final challenge for police – the speed that strategies need to be developed. The best strategists in the world could not have predicted the speed of the economic downturn and gone are the benefits of a three to five year strategy. With some private sector organisations focusing on each quarter of the financial year, it is questionable whether an annual policing plan is even valid given the speed of the changing context.

One of the key elements of strategic planning is to learn from the past to prepare for the future and one of the first challenges that face all organisations in this country is the length of time we have had financial stability. This means that the majority of staff old enough to remember the previous recession have retired and staff take their corporate learning with them. This will lead to the tactical requirements of ensuring that staff are sufficiently trained and equipped in how to deal with industrial disputes, civil unrest and all of the other issues that can arise from a recession.

There is one bright point in this gloomy forecast. The element that always benefits the police in times of recession is that politicians recognise that they are going to need the support of the police. Consequently they do whatever they can to retain that support. If you need evidence of this, then notice that they were very quick to ignore advice and ratify the public sector pay agreements for this year. No objection from Jacqui Smith this year then?