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Tuesday, 23 September 2014

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Cumbria police merger fears as budget tax rise rejected

Cumbria's crime commissioner fears potential funding cuts could put the county force at risk of merging with another police area.

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Thrashed out agreement:Police and Crime Commissioner Richard Rhodes

Richard Rhodes argued that an increase in the police element of householders’ council tax could reduce that risk – but his calls for a rise were rejected by a committee that scrutinises his work.

This ruling at a meeting today can however be vetoed by Mr Rhodes, with Cumbria’s Police and Crime Panel having no powers to appeal his eventual decision.

Mr Rhodes had put forward plans for a 1.93 per cent increase in the police share of the council tax bill, down from an initial 1.99 per cent increase plan.

The panel voted against the proposed increase eight to three, with a decrease in crime with a reduced workforce cited as one of the key reasons.

Members who voted against were Geoff Garrity (Labour, Copeland Borough Council), Graham Vincent (Liberal Democrat, South Lakeland District Council), Brenda Gray (Liberal Democrat, Cumbria County Council), Helen Fearon (Conservative, Cumbria County Council), John Mallinson (Conservative, Cumbria County Council), David Wilson (Independent, Allerdale Borough Council), Linda Vance (Independent Co-opted member) and Judith Cooke (Independent Co-opted member).

In favour were Celia Tibble (Labour, Allerdale Borough Council), Steven Bowditch (Labour, Carlisle City Council) and Barry Doughty (Labour, Barrow Borough Council).

Cumbria benefits from a funding process known as “damping”, which is intended to protect cash going to rural forces covering large areas – and it could suffer if this were to be altered.

Making his case at a meeting of the committee in Kendal, Mr Rhodes put forward fears that, should damping funding be withdrawn, Cumbria would be a prime candidate for a force merger.

He said: “There are talks of mergers and one very simple way the Government could force a merger would be to heavily reduce damping.

“The proposal in front of you could reduce that risk.”

Apart from the fall in crime, the panel also felt:

  • many other public authorities are freezing council tax and accepting Council Tax Freeze Grant and are also reviewing how / what services they deliver
  • the police have significant reserves and there are further opportunities to make efficiencies
  • Cumbria is on the whole better off in terms of resources and police officers compared to similar police forces

The panel accepted that potential central government changes to the damping mechanism is a significant risk and agreed a cautious approach is needed but felt there was an element of over cautiousness given it is very unlikely the risk will materialise fully in 2015/16.

The panel will now write to Mr Rhodes explaining the reasons for its decision.

The Commissioner must then decide whether to act on its views or continue with his plans unchanged. The panel has no powers to appeal his eventual decision.

Mr Rhodes declined to comment following today's meeting.

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