What Does the Future Hold for Lambeth’s At-Risk Police Stations?
By Bilgehan Akturan
We asked your questions to Councillor Mohammed Seedat, Lambeth’s Cabinet Member for Healthier and Stronger Communities, who has launched a public petition as part of a campaign to protect police stations in the borough…
What’s the petition to ‘Save Our Stations’?
Well, with police stations, since 2010, the government has diminished the London Metropolitan Police’s budget by £600 million. They haven’t explicitly cut the budget, but they’ve also not increased it so, taking into account inflation and related economic concerns, it has amounted to a £600 million cut. The way the police have dealt with that, under the mayoralties of both Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan, is maintain front-line police officers at the expense of back-office staff. The result is that bobbies on the beat are much more occupied with paperwork and spend more time in police stations rather than getting out on the street, making people feel safer. That’s clearly not sustainable in the long term. To make matters worse, the government has then required the Met to find another £400 million in savings from its budget by 2019. So, in all, that’s approximately £1 billion cut from the Met’s budget since 2010. That’s not a trivial figure and the Met are running out of options for dealing with it. The way they’ve found is, having already gutted their back office, they’re now selling off their buildings. This brings in more money for them. So, the proposal in Lambeth and every London borough is to have just one public facing police counter, have only one place that people can go to and close every other police station in the borough.
How will that affect people in Lambeth, given that they are proposing closing eight stations here?
For most people, thankfully, it won’t affect them, because most people don’t need to go to the police station, but, when you do need it that one time in your life, the only place to go will be Brixton. Which is fine if you live near a Tube station, but when you go further down, zone 2, zone 3, past Streatham, into more suburban areas, it’s far. It’s not easy travelling to Brixton at any time of day, especially rush hour, which can be any time from say 2.30pm until about 7pm, realistically. Because of the geography of Lambeth, it very easily can be a one-hour trip on the bus from southern Streatham to Brixton.
Does it also increase the workload of police officers at Brixton police station?
Yeah, so the other fear is that the sale of buildings isn’t enough to pay for these cuts, so more has to be done. The mayor has been warning that this isn’t it, this isn’t the end of cuts. So, the police may have to cut 13,000 more officers from the streets at a time when violent crime is increasing, when the threat of terrorism has clearly increased. One of the biggest concerns I have is that there was a lot of focus and energy put on neighbourhood policing under Ken Livingstone. By having fewer police officers and police buildings, you can’t be as focused on the community as you would want to be. In Brixton, and Lambeth in general, there’s a long history of tensions between the community and the police.
How will Brixton feel now?
I definitely believe that people will feel that this is a repeal of the state, as they’re seeing a reduction of services in front of their eyes, and it follows that people will feel less protected. It is ultimately something that Sadiq Khan has to sign off on, but he has no choice in the matter, he can’t rustle up £400 million from nowhere – it’s something the government has to fund. The one duty the government has is to look after its people and in this particular case it’s failing to do that.
How many of the police stations would you want kept open?
All of them, because the local police service have already been through huge deductions in the past, and it’s not sustainable to keep cutting services, unless there’s a good offering in its place, which I don’t believe there is. We have a responsibility to residents. We have grave concerns about police engagement with the community, as in the past it hasn’t been very good: they have these contact sessions, for example, where police officers stand in an advertised place for people to meet with them. The reality is no one attends; if they do it’s the same people going with the same few issues and it gives a very lopsided view about the issues affecting people to the police. In Lambeth, and especially Brixton, due to the history here, there’s been a huge amount of work done between the police and the community. It’s taken a lot of time to build up trust. The police commander is very good at understanding that Lambeth is a unique place in that respect. If you talk to the borough commander he’ll tell you that Lambeth is one of the most challenging policing areas in western Europe: unfortunately, it has a very high crime rate and a whole host of other ills.
If you aren’t able to keep all the stations open, what would be a good compromise?
There is no compromise to be made here. If you close the police stations to the public, they’ll be sold off to make money. That has huge repercussions for logistics. For example, where will police cars be stationed? Where will neighbourhood police officers be based and how can they be considered neighbourhood police officers if they’re nowhere in the neighbourhood, don’t really know the area and are on a rota shift pattern? It doesn’t really work. You end up with a police service that’s not really engaged with the community or meeting its needs – that’s my fear. In the year 2016–17 in Lambeth, there were 600 violent incidents involving knife crime. The previous year, 2015–16, there were 400, which is still high, but the space of a year has seen a dramatic increase. This year it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down either. In that context, if you’re closing police stations and reducing police officer numbers, it’s folly.
How is the process with regard to closures and budget cuts proceeding?
The process is that MOPAC – the Mayor’s Office of Policing and Crime, which is responsible for commissioning the police – ultimately makes the decision of which stations are going to be closed. So, the Save Our Stations petition is directed not only at the government but also at MOPAC as well. It is doing a consultation now, which closed on October 8th. Thereafter it’s a bit hazy about what will happen. There’s no definitive timeline about when decisions are made and implemented. So if the public gets behind this campaign, we still have time to make MOPAC change its mind.
What has the response been like so far?
Very good. We have nearly a thousand signatures, we’ve done a huge campaign here and nearly every household in the borough has been leafleted about the closures, so I think everyone is now aware about the scale of cuts to policing.
And residents are similarly outraged?
Definitely, as soon as they understand what’s happening, they’re incredulous that someone would propose such a thing. If you talk to MOPAC, it says not many people go to police stations, so it’s not worth leaving them open, most people prefer to telephone, which is true, but a lot of the data used isn’t representative and MOPAC has been very restrictive in the statistics it’s employed. I think that also misses the point a bit. Police stations aren’t there to be used loads, they’re there as a base for officers, and represent safety in the community. By taking that away, it will inevitably make us feel less safe.
Have you had any reaction from the police about your petition?
Yes, the police can’t make an official statement, as they’re apolitical, but I can tell you that the sentiment is very much the same as mine.