National Standards, Local Delivery: Police Reform in England and Wales

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1 Introduction

In 2006 central government attempted unsuccessfully to radically re-engineer policing in England and Wales by reducing the 43 police forces to a small number of strategic police forces. An earlier report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of the Constabulary (HMIC) in 2004, called Closing the Gap, had claimed that the current 43 police force structure was no longer 'fit for purpose' and, in the interests of efficiency and effectiveness of policing, should change. The Home Secretary proposed the creation of a limited number of strategic police forces. A central argument underpinning these proposals was the issue of performance, and the government claimed that smaller forces were not capable of delivering 'security and protective services' effectively (O'Connor 2005). Following these proposals, the Home Secretary set out an extremely short timescale for the reorganization. Police authorities and forces were required to consult with their publics and develop proposals, in collaboration with neighboring force areas, for mergers that would meet the Home Secretary's requirements. Failing this, merger would be imposed from the centre. Considerable time and resources were devoted to the preparation work for merger--an estimated [pounds sterling]10 billion pounds. Whilst some police authorities and chief constables strongly resisted the proposals from the outset, in some parts of the country there was more support for the idea of mergers and a number of initial proposals were put forward (Tregidga 2006). The proposals quickly became mired in great political controversy, although it was events outside of the field of policing that were eventually to derail them. The Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, for whom the restructuring had become something of a personal crusade, was sacked following a number of scandals in the prison service and replaced with John Reid. Within a short period of time, Reid announced that the restructuring proposals were to be postponed indefinitely. According to Godfrey, the then Home Secretary Clarke had wrongfully handled this reform as a technical exercise, largely ignoring the whole political and public dimension to the argument. 'The project was derailed as the result of police authorities, the resistance of a minority of chief constables, the support of members of both Houses of Parliament, of all parties and none, the backing of national commentators in the media and in academia, the reaction of local communities and stakeholders throughout the country and the fortunate coming to a premature end of the ministerial career of Charles Clarke' (Godfrey 2007: 75). The whole controversy over force restructuring and its outcome showed the existence of strong resistance against (powerful) tendencies to further centralize the organization of policing, not to mention the even stronger opposition to the idea of a national police force. The debate also demonstrated the resilience of the existing police system, and a peculiar attachment to localism in British policing. But it made also visible the divergent and sometimes contradictory tendencies that exist in British policing.

The main aims of this paper are to give an overview of the current organization and structure of policing in England and Wales, to describe and analyze the most significant shifts that have taken place in the police system during in recent decades, and to explore the dynamics that gave rise to these shifts. In particular we will focus on changes in the organization of the police, on police governance and accountability and the centralizing and countervailing tendencies against centralization that can be distinguished within policing. Our central question is as follows: "What shifts have taken place in policing in England & Wales with regard to the work of the police, the organization of the police and the democratic control over the police, and how are these shifts to be assessed? The main body of the paper is divided into five sections, the first of which describes briefly the organizational structure of the police in England and Wales. …