The Policing and Crime Bill, which recently received its first reading in Parliament, places a clear duty on emergency services to collaborate. More broadly, it is envisaged that policing will be a big and visible part of devolution along with criminal justice and education. But what will be the challenges in integrating policing and other emergency services into devo deals?
There is already a very busy agenda around these services. Theresa May recently indicated that she wants police and crime commissioners (PCCs) to have the ability to set up free schools for troubled children, on the basis of the Northamptonshire example at police headquarters.
The aim of the Home Secretary is to bring together the two great reforms of the last Parliament – police reform and school reform. Responsibility for fire and rescue policy has been transferred to the Department for Communities and Local Government from the Home Office. This is seen as a natural progression of emergency service collaboration.
Discussions are also ongoing in respect of the inclusion of ambulance services to provide a strong cohesive foundation of all the blue light services to protect the public and support local communities. Greater Manchester Fire is now the first responder for the ambulance service in Greater Manchester, for example
There are lots of variants in the devolution deals which have been negotiated, all based on the notion that local communities should have more control over how money is raised and spent in their area. Police, fire and ambulance are recognised as important public services. Their complexity is also recognised in the process for raising a precept, so they are adequately funded.
As well as a growing recognition that emergency services play a key and far reaching role not just an emergency response, the importance of the policing role is reflected in the requirement and need for a directly elected mayor to unlock the fullest possible devolution deal. Manchester has led the way on adopting a mayoral arrangement and the current PCC has been elected as the interim mayor by the leaders of the 10 Greater Manchester authorities.
Devolution of policing is under consideration in other areas, for example the West Midlands. Other areas are however preparing for PCC elections in May so the current position could continue in some places for a long time. All this adds complexity with no standardised national framework.
There are some clear advantages in having a mayoral role which includes at least policing. It promotes partnership and preventive working, coordinated through one strategic lead. The current and previous mayor of London has been regarded as a success, although it must be borne in mind the London mayor has been comparatively well resourced.
There is an argument to be made that to ensure the success of devolved arrangements and that key important community safety and criminal justice services are delivered to a high standard, regional devolution should be similarly funded.
A key advantage of devolving blue light services is that a wider perspective can be taken to promote community safety and give an end-to-end view of the criminal justice system including prevention, prisons and probation as well as interaction with other services such as housing, education and skills - all of which are key to crime prevention, rehabilitation and ensuring that appropriate priority is given to the use of blue light services.
There is a wide range of legislation requiring and enabling greater collaboration and devolution arrangements could be a big help in driving better collaboration and integration of blue light emergency services, driving efficiencies and better operation.
Policing, fire and ambulance are specialised areas and benefit from particular expertise. Setting up the system of police and crime commissioners in 2012 was not universally popular or well understood. It required the development of a new relationship between PCCs and chief constables as a result of the careful balance which has to be struck between strategic and operational activity.
It also demanded a different form of relationship with other partners, which is now evolving again, arguably just as the current arrangements are bedding in. Making the mayor the PCC could add complexity to this.
When that is added to the further idea of PCCs being given powers to take over fire and services where a local case is made, and potentially playing a bigger role in setting local priorities such as youth justice, free schools and probation, it may be felt that there is not sufficient expertise to achieve change at the pace which seems to be envisaged.
There are a number of practical difficulties to overcome including the differences in many areas between policing, fire and ambulance areas when compared with local authority boundaries. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that there are real efficiencies to be made from better integration and information sharing.
Often, local and coordinated national discussion can be an excellent way of getting to grips with some of the practical difficulties and finding common ground. A good way to start would be reaching a shared understanding of where there are overlaps in service delivery so that duplication is removed, budgets can be shared and effective local partnerships delivered.
It will be for each local authority to consider how best to make the model work for them. As always, a great deal will hinge on the trust between public sector partners at a local level and the strengths of those relationships which enable them to focus on the benefits of collaboration in their own communities.
Those with a shared vision for the future are likely to go further and faster than those wallflowers that play it cool, are too picky or lack an appetite for risk.