Real police in a fictional community: Local control is a convenient argument for chief constables who enjoy power, says David Walker

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THE GLOUCESTERSHIRE police force, at present below its Home Office-approved establishment level - says it is likely to run into financial problems as a result of the murder investigation in Cromwell Street, Gloucester. So who will meet the cost of an investigation that must undoubtedly be completed? Councillors? Magistrates? The Home Office?

Control of police spending is one of the deeper mysteries in this country, exacerbated by the absence of any clear relationship between spending and the incidence of crime. And crime prevention is the test that the Government's current proposals for reform of the police authorities most singularly fail.

One view about the police service is that, as most crime is local, it is best dealt with by officers who provide continuity of service and contact with the local community. This does not mean, however, that the present system of county-based police authorities is the best or only system. Other categories of crime - perhaps including cases of serial murder - demand regional and national policing.

A radical reform of the police should perhaps begin by abandoning the British idea that all police must belong to a single service. Why should there not be a variety of really local police forces, as elsewhere in Europe and in the United States, as well as hi-tech crime-busters operating at national level?

Even at local level, however, two quite separate questions arise: the functional one (how best to organise the police locally to stop car thefts and make a stab at catching burglars), and the political one (whether it is only local councils that offer democratic accountability and so make the best managers of the police).

It is high time that the supposed superiority of local government was questioned. Historically, local government has found it difficult to contend with and manage professionals. Local authorities try to claim 'autonomy', which is often expensive. And the idea that local authorities are also necessarily 'communities' is mistaken.

Advocates of local government come in two shapes. First, there are the golden-agers: they believe that once, in some bygone municipal era, local authorities happily, and to the public's contentment, provided a great array of services that have subsequently been crushed by centralisation.

They tend conveniently to forget that local management in practically every service sector has been found wanting. The growing Home Office involvement in running the police reflects partly the changing nature of crime and partly the refusal, or inability, of local authorities to pay the bills from local revenue.

Second, there are the aspirationists: conveniently ignoring the psephological fact that the public is by and large indifferent to local government and deeply suspicious of municipal enterprise, they argue that local authorities will transform themselves into 'enablers', 'strategists' and far-seeing monitors of public services.

Advocates of local government have recently enjoyed an upturn in their fortunes. A pamphlet from the European Policy Forum, The New Local Governance, captures the mood: deep discontent with the expansion of the state, tipping over into the blithe expectation that local authorities will change themselves into a new kind of animal, able to monitor and control public services - health, education, the police - in a way that they have hitherto proved incapable of doing.

These advocates of local government are now asking us to forget the record of police authorities. How often do the councillors who sit on these authorities report back, either to their councillor colleagues or to the public? When was the last time a police authority debated the fundamentals of crime - or the fear of crime?

We have seen how, in Merseyside and Greater Manchester, when push came to shove (in the bulky form of a uniformed chief constable), councillors backed away from asserting their control.

The existing police authorities have also concealed the extent of Home Office responsibility. Police officers' allowances, work practices and efficiency go virtually unmonitored at local level.

As far as the police are concerned, the powers in the land are the chief constables, who, as the miners' strike showed, have great local autonomy and largely unaccountable collective strength.

It is no wonder that they oppose the Home Secretary's proposals for change, since the changes imply fewer posts for chief constables and, potentially, closer scrutiny.

How did the police service manage to 'escape' outside management or scrutiny? It happened largely under cover of localism. One of the characteristics of local government in England and Wales has been its complaisance in the face of professional power.

In many local authorities it was actually the professionals who ran the show: the county education officer, the borough engineer, the chief constable. The structure of local government traditionally condoned and even bolstered autonomous professionalism.

By sleight of hand, advocates of local government have presented police authorities - unwieldy amalgamations of magistrates and councillors - as 'community' organisations. But it is far too readily assumed that local authorities rest on anything resembling communities, whatever that slippery and promiscuous concept is thought to mean.

It has to be said that there is no ready connection between the policing of Moss Side and the meetings of the Greater Manchester Police Authority, or between the Thames Valley Authority, a multi-county hybrid, and the detail of street crime in Reading.

Identification of the shortcomings of this 'localist' amnesia does not automatically mean that the Government's proposals for reform of the police service should be endorsed. The Government has its own way of toying with the ideas of 'local' and 'community' professionalism.

Somehow, it thinks that public services can be taken out of the local political context, reformed and reorganised according to management-school tenets, then reinserted into these 'communities'.

But the Government's proposals do not answer the question of how these communities will be able to make their voice heard and exercise their choice.

We would all wish the police to behave professionally - that is, to follow a code of conduct and regulate themselves in the public interest. We would also wish police professionalism to be more open - which might mean giving the public the bad news that there is not much the police can do about much crime. Perhaps if they were open about this, the question of how the police were governed would become secondary.

The author is urban affairs correspondent of the BBC.