Police Stations

– in the House of Commons at 10:33 pm on 10 July 2023.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Robert Largan.)

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet 10:50, 10 July 2023

The hour is late, but we still have an important issue to discuss this evening: police stations. In November 2017, the Mayor of London announced the closure of a substantial list of police stations around the capital, including Barnet police station. Ever since, I have been campaigning to save it. A key justification given for the Mayor’s decision was that the number of crimes reported at police station front counters has fallen. It is true that the way people report crimes has changed in recent years—it can, of course, now be done by phone or online—but being able to attend a police station front counter and talk to someone face to face is still an option valued by many, especially the elderly or those who may not be comfortable in the digital environment.

Moreover, police stations perform other vital functions in addition to front counter services. Crucially, they are a place to locate officers, but they also provide facilities such as evidence and equipment storage, police vehicle parking, and custody suites and cells. As such, what is even more worrying than the loss of a front counter is the loss of the physical presence of the police in a particular locality. In the six years since Mayor Khan announced the closure of Barnet police station’s front counter, that police station building has thankfully remained in use by officers, both neighbourhood police and other teams.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. The right hon. Lady is right to mention community policing—it is about not just the buildings, but the community officers and the contact with their local communities. She made a very helpful intervention in the debate on the Northern Ireland budget that referred to that issue. I echo her request to ensure that not only the buildings, but the community policing is there, because it is the eyes and ears of the community. It is about making policing better.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

I absolutely agree that community policing is vital. As I will explore in my speech, the presence of police stations is an important part of keeping policing close to communities. If we shut them down or retreat into a handful of buildings around the capital, we make it more difficult to deliver genuine community policing. Closing Barnet police station altogether and selling it off for redevelopment would leave officers with nowhere at all in my constituency from which to operate. That would be disastrous, not least because it could mean ward officers having to undertake long and complex journeys to and from the only remaining police station in the borough, which is in Colindale.

At engagement meetings linked with the 2017 closure announcements, I remember City Hall representatives indicating that one of the reasons police stations were now less important was that officers would be given iPads for processing paperwork, which they could use anywhere. Frankly, it is wholly unrealistic to expect a police officer sitting in Starbucks with an iPad to be an adequate substitute for a functioning police station. Apart from the noted reliability problems with many such devices issued by the Metropolitan police, that approach would violate confidentiality and data protection obligations. There is also the concern that a number of the Met’s IT upgrade programmes have yet to be fully delivered, as highlighted in the Casey report. Moreover, officers would undoubtedly be approached by members of the public, making it harder for them to focus on the work they need to do. Their office time would inevitably become advice surgery time.

In February last year, I secured a promise from Sophie Linden, the deputy mayor for policing, that Barnet police station’s building would not be disposed of until a base was found for ward police teams that enabled them to reach their areas in 20 minutes by walking or cycling. That was of course welcome, and it amounted to a partial reprieve for the station, but it is not an adequate substitute for a properly functioning police station.

Photo of Louie French Louie French Conservative, Old Bexley and Sidcup

On this point about the connection with communities, particularly in Greater London, does my right hon. Friend agree that the basic command unit model that the Mayor has adopted since 2018 is having a negative impact on the ability of police to connect with communities, but also to respond to crimes in a timely manner?

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

I am very much aware of the concern felt in many parts of London about the tri-borough policing model, and I think it is important to review it.

I turn back to the idea that new bases for police officers could be found. There is still real uncertainty about where these would be and what they would involve. The suggestion remains that a new base for police officers could be in a corner of a library or the backroom in a high street shop, but providing a base for police officers is not a straightforward matter. Officers have access to highly sensitive personal data, and they hold evidence from cases for which it is vital that they keep rigorous and reliable records of custody. Moreover, some police equipment is potentially harmful, such as tasers, and it would be dangerous if this kind of kit fell into the wrong hands. Special storage facilities would need to be built in new alternative accommodation. They could not just set up a few lockers in a local library. Flogging off existing police stations could end up being a false economy if multiple new premises for ward teams in different areas need to be bought and fitted up to replace them.

I also want to highlight the sense of confidence that the presence of a police station gives people—a sense that would be entirely lost in the areas where police stations are currently under threat. For example, the East London Advertiser reported that people felt that police station closures in Tower Hamlets meant that the area felt less safe. Complete loss of the remaining police presence in Chipping Barnet town centre would inevitably leave my constituents feeling more insecure. Serious concerns have been reported to me about crime, thefts and antisocial behaviour in Barnet High Street, including what appears to have been a serious assault that took place recently outside McDonald’s. The sale of the police station and its complete closure would make it harder to grapple with the existing crime issues in the local area.

These worrying local crime problems were discussed recently at a meeting I attended of the High Barnet police community action panel, under the chairmanship of my constituent Mahender Khari. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to him, and to everyone who chairs or takes part in police action panels in my constituency. They do a vital job. That includes Councillor Jennifer Grocock, who has done excellent and innovative work on making neighbourhood police teams more visible by involving them in Barnet Council’s community safety hubs, which were pioneered by the previous Conservative administration in Barnet.

I am also worried about the impact of police station closures on the viability of our high streets. We all know that town centres have suffered in recent years for a range of reasons, particularly the big shift to online retail. It has become harder and harder to get footfall to high streets, and I fear that losing police stations could lead to a further hollowing out of our struggling town centres, adding to the list of vacant buildings.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

I thank the right hon. Member for her speech and for giving way. Last November, Devon and Cornwall police launched an online poll using SurveyMonkey, and invited the public in Devon and Cornwall to vote to reopen three front desks out of a list of 44. I was pleased to help promote that poll and to attend the reopening of Tiverton police station—and I hope to attend that of Honiton later this year—but does she think that we should not have to fill in SurveyMonkey polls to get to speak to a human being?

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

The hon. Member makes the important point that much of what we are talking about is the ability of the police to maintain appropriate contacts with members of the public. That distance from members of the public is one of the problems that the Met is grappling with, and I think it is useful to hear his point of view about police stations and police services elsewhere in the country.

During this difficult era for high streets, we should try to enhance the visible presence of public services, not scale it back. That is another good reason to maintain the police station estate, both in Barnet and in other towns and cities. In her report on the Met, Baroness Casey highlighted that station closures are likely to have affected efficiency, with police spending more time travelling, and longer police response times. Recent research by Elisa Facchetti, published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research, pointed to a correlation between reduction in police stations and poorer crime clear-up rates. That suggests that the capacity to collect the evidence needed to solve crimes might be impeded by police having to travel increased distances, although I acknowledge that many other variables could be relevant, and it is difficult to establish a clear causative link.

Four important recent developments make this debate very timely, and mean that the Mayor of London should reverse his closure programme. First, the Government have delivered on the Conservative manifesto pledge to recruit 20,000 additional police officers. That means that the Met now has more uniformed officers than at any time in its history—and we need somewhere to put them. That radically changes the situation we faced in 2017, when the Mayor wielded the axe against Barnet police station and others.

Secondly, Baroness Casey’s damning report on the Met cited the closure of 124 police stations as one of the reasons behind what she describes as “eroded frontline policing”. She concluded that the combined impact of various efficiency measures, including police station closures, had led to

“a more dispersed and hands-off training experience for new recruits and existing personnel, which gives them less sense of belonging to the Met…greater distances for Response officers and Neighbourhood Policing teams to travel”,

and

“fewer points of accessible contact for the public”.

At a time when culture and conduct at the Met have come under huge scrutiny, we should not persist in making disposals from the police station estate—disposals that are calculated to make officers less connected to one another, more isolated and more distant from the communities they serve.

Photo of David Simmonds David Simmonds Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner

My right hon. Friend is making a speech that will entirely resonate with my constituents. Does she agree that the Mayor’s U-turn on the closure of the Uxbridge police station, which serves my constituents, as well as those in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, demonstrates that the argument that there was simply no alternative but to press ahead with the closures no longer holds water? Does it give her a stirring of hope and optimism that other police stations, such as that in Northwood, already closed and disposed of by the Mayor, will be replaced with operational police stations, or that other stations closed by the Mayor will be reopened forthwith?

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

I agree entirely. The Mayor’s U-turn on Uxbridge should be a lifeline for police stations across the capital. That is one of the reasons why I am delighted to have the opportunity to make this speech.

I come to the third reason why the Mayor should change his approach. As part of the big changes that he is taking forward, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Mark Rowley, has asked his team to carry out a review of the list of police stations earmarked for closure and sell-off. I have made the case strongly for saving Barnet police station in a number of meetings with senior police officers, including Sir Mark. That includes at a meeting in May, at which Sir Mark acknowledged how important it is for the police to be close to the communities they serve. He also accepted that whether physical premises are retained or closed inevitably has an impact on whether officers can genuinely be close to the community.

I understand that that is one of the reasons why the review, expected to report at the end of the summer, was set up. I sincerely hope that it provides a lifeline for Barnet police station and other communities experiencing the same closure threat. That includes Sidcup, Notting Hill and Wimbledon. My hon. Friends the Members for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French), for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) and for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) have all fought hard for their local police station, as has my hon. Friend David Simmonds.

Until a few days ago, the places where police stations were in jeopardy and teetering on the brink of sale and redevelopment included Uxbridge. That brings me to my fourth and final point. Uxbridge was on the same closure list as Barnet in 2017. When the Mayor announced its shut-down, Conservative Hillingdon Council offered to buy the site at the market rate, and to provide a £500,000 revenue contribution and a leaseback arrangement, so that the community could keep its police station and the services it provides. At the time, the Mayor rejected this plan out of hand. Undeterred, Hillingdon Conservatives campaigned energetically to save their police station, led by Councillor Steve Tuckwell, the excellent Conservative candidate in the by-election.

For years, those efforts fell on deaf ears at City Hall, and then there seemed to be a Damascene conversion. Suddenly, out of the blue, the Mayor announced that he had

“written to the Met Commissioner saying that the case for now retaining more police station sites across the capital is strong”.

He is yet to specify exactly which police stations may escape the axe he threatened them with six years ago, but this looks suspiciously like a by-election stunt to take credit for a plan to safeguard the police station put together by Hillingdon Council and Steve Tuckwell. It would be massively cynical if the Mayor’s U-turn were confined just to Uxbridge. I therefore take this opportunity once again to call on Mayor Khan to remove the threat to Barnet police station and confirm that its future is secure, along with other stations under threat around the capital.

In conclusion, when the plan to close Barnet police station was first floated in 2013, I fought successfully to stop it. I saved our police station back then, and I am doing all I can to save it again. I have raised this issue in Parliament many times, including twice at Prime Minister’s questions. The online version of the petition for this issue, which I presented to Parliament last year, now has more than 1,600 signatures. I assure the House and my constituents in Chipping Barnet that I will continue to do all I can to resist the Mayor’s threat to our local police station so that my constituents are safer and more secure and can have the visible police presence in their local town centre that they rightly believe is so important.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department 11:06, 10 July 2023

Let me start by congratulating my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers on securing this important debate and for speaking with such passion and eloquence on this topic. I agree with her sentiments about how important police stations are for our constituencies and our local communities. I say that having visited Chorley police station just a few days ago, Mr Speaker.

As my right hon. Friend said, police stations in our local communities are close to the people they serve. They help officers stay in touch with the local community and connected to it. Their ears and eyes are on the ground picking up information, and they can serve local residents. They are also visible and reassure the public that the police are close to where crimes may be committed. It shows that police are available and accessible, and they can often respond to crimes a lot more quickly if they are deploying from a police station close to the local community, rather than one miles and miles away. My right hon. Friend set out a whole number of reasons why police stations as a physical location are so important.

In relation to police stations in London, I completely agree with my right hon. Friend that Mayor Sadiq Khan should look again at the closure plan he set out in 2017—I think it was for a total of 37 police stations—and reverse it. Some of those closures have happened already; others have not. He demonstrated with his rather opportunistic and cynical U-turn on Uxbridge just a few days ago that he could look at this issue again, and he should. We should keep in mind that decisions on opening and closing police stations are for police and crime commissioners—in London, that is Sadiq Khan—not for the Government. I join my right hon. Friend in calling on the Mayor to reconsider and reverse the swingeing cuts that he announced back in 2017.

It is worth reminding ourselves as we make that call that plenty of resources are available. The Metropolitan police have the highest funding per capita of any police force in the country by some margin, and that is excluding the national and international capital city grant and the counter-terrorism money they receive. On a straightforward territorial policing basis, the Met gets more per capita than any other police force. It receives some £3.3 billion a year. That figure went up by £102 million this compared to last year.

It is also worth reminding ourselves that the whole policing system across the country gets £17.2 billion a year, and the part of that spent by police and crime commissioners on local policing—the vast majority of it—went up by £550 million this year compared to last year. So the resources are there, and we expect police and crime commissioners to use them wisely—unlike Mayor Sadiq Khan, who is not doing so.

This might be a good moment to congratulate my hon. Friend Shaun Bailey, who is in the Chamber this evening. His tireless campaign has saved his local police station in Tipton from the planned cuts. I am sure the whole House will want to congratulate him on his successful campaign to overturn a decision originally announced by the police and crime commissioner in the west midlands.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet made excellent points about why police stations are so important and why the Met’s decision should be reversed, one of which was about the extra police officers that we have recruited across England and Wales. Across the jurisdiction as a whole, we now have record police numbers—149,572 to be precise, which is 3,500 more than at any other time in the history of policing. The Metropolitan police also have record numbers—about 35,000 more than ever before—and, as she said, they need to be accommodated somewhere.

It is worth mentioning that the Metropolitan police could have had even more officers—an extra 1,000 officers —if Mayor Sadiq Khan had used all the money that was available. It is a great shame and a great disappointment to me as a London MP, as I am sure it is to colleagues, that he failed to do so. I therefore completely endorse the points my right hon. Friend made about police stations in our community.

There are some things that can be done to try to mitigate Sadiq Khan’s terrible police station closure plans. In my constituency of Croydon South, we have a fire station in Purley—there is no police station in my constituency—and following some work between the local police and the London Fire Brigade, we have managed to move local patrolling neighbourhood officers into the fire station. They now patrol from the fire station around the neighbouring area, which helps a little towards faster response times. It is also more convenient for officers, and they can share information with the firefighters based there. That is helpful, but it is not as good as having a police station.

Given the lateness of the hour, I will conclude. I thank my right hon. Friend again for her tireless campaign to save Barnet police station. The Mayor of London has record levels of funding; I only wish that he would use that funding a little more wisely and reverse his shocking closure plans.