PCC Blog 190

It must be almost two years since I first raised in these blogs the matter of dangerous and aggressive dogs.

I had noticed how frequently they were beginning to feature in the daily summary I receive about more serious crimes and incidents in South Yorkshire. We speculated on the reasons for this and concluded that it was because during the Covid lock-downs, many people had bought dogs as pets to encourage them to get out and take daily exercise. But these dogs were never properly socialised: they only knew their owners and had much less interaction with other dogs. We called them the ‘lock-down puppies’. But as life returned to normal, they didn’t know how to behave and became nervous and aggressive.

There was some truth in that, but alongside it was another story: one particular breed – the XL Bully – had become a favourite for many people and it began to feature disproportionately in the statistics. One of our Assistant Chief Constables kept me regularly informed about what police were finding both here and across the country.

I became an advocate for the banning of the breed – which has now happened. But in the intervening months and until fairly recently, I have had many people tell me I was wrong. The breed was not to blame but the owners were.

If I ever had any doubts about my stance, they were swept away with the fatal attack by two XL Bully dogs on 68 year old Esther Martin. (One, incidentally, was named Beauty.) This incident revealed why this dog was especially dangerous. Horrified neighbours went to the aid of Esther, hitting the dogs on the head with spades in a desperate attempt to stop the savaging. But to no avail. The animals were utterly focused.

But I think the last word on this was spoken by Ashley Warren, the man whose dogs were responsible for killing Esther Martin. He said: “I did not know Bullys were aggressive. I didn’t believe all this stuff. But now I’ve learned the hard way. I honestly thought the ban was a stupid government plan to wipe out a breed which I had never seen anything but softness and love from. Now I think they need to be wiped out.”

Bow waves of the recession

Last week the Office for National Statistics said the British economy had fallen into recession.

We had a second quarter of negative growth, bigger than expected. It was the final piece of the economic jigsaw showing that in 2023 there was stagnation. One major reason for this has been the on-going cost of living crisis: people cannot afford to spend any more on nights out or new clothes. Looking ahead, there seems good reason to suppose that persistent stagnation will be the story for some years to come. This will have consequences for policing and criminal justice over that time. There is not the money for public services.

This will be compounded by the fact that the urgency for most of our elected representatives in Parliament over the coming months is going to be political as much as economic: they face a general election. They are keen to have tax cuts in place before people set out for the polling stations. But there is no room to fund tax cuts from economic growth, because there is none. They will, therefore, have to reduce public spending in order to finance them. But which government departments will have to be squeezed? Choices will have to be made.

We already know that some departments will have their funding safeguarded – the NHS, social care, education and probably defence.  There would be public outcry if the government said it was going to reduce taxes at the expense of health care or schooling. So these departmental budgets will be ‘protected’. The ‘unprotected’ will include those ministries that cover police and wider criminal justice – prisons, courts, victims’ services – such as the Home Office and Ministry of Justice. It is highly likely, therefore, that finances for policing from the centre will be reduced in real terms (no allowance for inflation).

There is, though, one tax that the government will almost certainly not reduce: council tax. On the contrary, it will see this as a way of making up for lost revenues at the centre by shifting more of the burden of paying for public services to the council tax payer. This is what it has done over the past two years in policing by ‘allowing’ PCCs to increase the police precept (council tax) by relatively large amounts – £15, and this year £13, on Band D properties.

In May, there will be elections for new Police and Crime Commissioners or, as in South Yorkshire, for a Mayor with responsibility for policing. There will also be, at some point, a general election. Many candidates will soon be campaigning for those elections. There will be a temptation to make promises for policing and justice that will involve financial commitments – more police or more police stations, for example.

But in light of all the above, any further spending promises in the coming elections will either have to be broken the other side of the voting, or existing budgets and plans will be twisted out of shape trying to accommodate new commitments. The alternative is to promise something different: to put policing on a steady footing, to make sensible savings and improve productivity and efficiency – not the sort of thing that sets voters’ pulses racing.

Fifty candles

I am a member of the Fire and Rescue Authority, which is otherwise made up of councillors from each district. It oversees the work of the South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service (SYFRS).

The SYFRS has its origins in the creation of the South Yorkshire County Fire Service in March 1974. This brought together what were at that time discreet Metropolitan Fire Brigades in Sheffield, Doncaster, Rotherham, Barnsley and parts of the former West Riding. So this year marks the 50th anniversary of a county-wide service.

Writing about this in a recent Message to officers and staff, the Chief Fire Officer, Chris Kirby, reminded us what fire officers wore in those days: rubber leggings and wool tunics. When you see the protective clothing the contemporary officer wears, you shudder to think of the even graver risks previous generations of fire fighters ran.

Equipment too has changed. I remember, as a child, the axe that a fire fighter neighbour of ours used to carry, with one end of the blade coming to a point, as if he might be expected to make his way up a glacier. His career ended when he went onto a factory roof to gauge how far a fire had spread and fell through it. It had been weakened by the advancing flames. I guess the service would use a drone now.

The Chief Fire Officer also reminded us of the change in focus that has come about over this time. In the 1970s, the work was almost completely geared to responding to emergencies. That was a time when people had coal fires, chip pans filled with hot fat and fell asleep in front of the TV with a cigarette in their hand. There are fewer fires caused in this way today so the focus now is more heavily on preventing incidents happening in the first place.

And the culture has changed too. When the county-wide service came into being, there were no women fire fighters. They first came in 1978. And apart from London, there were few from ethnic minority groups either.

So the story of SYFRS, like that of the police, is one of continuous change. But whenever I see another high rise block of flats being built in one of our cities, I think of the fire fighters and wish that our architects, developers and planning committees thought about them a little more as well.

Stay safe