Neighbourhood policing risks being 'eroded', HMIC warns
Budget cuts are damaging neighbourhood policing and could jeopardise crime prevention efforts, the police watchdog for England and Wales has warned.
HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) said neighbourhood officers were being put on other duties, resulting in a less visible street presence.
But forces were praised for generally coping well with cuts and maintaining standards of service to the public.
HMIC acknowledged that crime was falling, as new figures were released.
The data showed that crimes recorded by police in England and Wales fell by 7% in the year to March 2013.
The Office for National Statistics figures showed there were reductions in nearly all the main categories of crime including violence, but sexual offences rose 1%.
Separate statistics from the Crime Survey for England and Wales showed the number of crimes had fallen 9% since a year ago.
The Crime Survey is based on people's experience of crime and includes offences that are not reported.
Meanwhile, the Home Office said the number of police officers had fallen to below 130,000; some 4,500 fewer than last year.
The HMIC report largely praised police forces for absorbing significant cuts, which are expected to total 20% cut by 2015 as the government reduces spending.
But HM Inspector of Constabulary, Zoe Billingham, warned: "We also have some concerns that neighbourhood policing risks being eroded as forces change how they deliver local policing."
Ms Billingham said neighbourhood policing was the "cornerstone of the British policing model" not a "nice to have".
Broadening the remit of neighbourhood policing would have a "potentially detrimental effect" on crime prevention work and "impair" the level of service the public received, the report added.
Some neighbourhood teams were staffed by just community support officers, not fully-warranted police.
HMIC said most forces planned to balance their books by the end of the spending review period, while working to make 31,600 staff reductions by March 2015.
It said forces planned to have 6,600 fewer officers working on front-line duties but the number of front-line officers as a proportion of staffing was forecast to increase.
Chief Inspector of Constabulary Tom Winsor said: "The quality of the service to the public has been maintained as crime has continued to fall and victim satisfaction has continued to rise."
Mr Windsor said forces could make long-term savings and fight crime by investing in new technology.
Steve Finnigan, of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said the report recognised how forces were "rising to the challenge" of meeting funding cuts.
He said: "All forces have delivered within budget for both years of the spending review so far. Chief officers and all of their staff will continue to work hard to protect and prioritise front-line services but those resources cannot be left untouched and numbers will continue to reduce."
The HMIC report warned while there had been a "good" response overall to the financial situation there was "considerable variation in the approaches taken by forces".
Five forces would find it especially difficult to cope with further cuts after 2015, it said.
These were Bedfordshire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire.
The report said that West Yorkshire Police had left "large elements of its operation untouched" and South Yorkshire Police had not "achieved savings seen elsewhere".
While Northamptonshire Police's approaches to the spending review had been "innovative", it had "struggled to maintain its performance levels".
Lincolnshire Police and Bedfordshire Police had also "responded well" but as smaller forces they might have "limited opportunities to reduce costs further", the report said.
The watchdog said it was also "deeply disappointed" with the pace of change on collaboration between forces which would help them be more efficient.
However, Mr Winsor said some forces were operating so closely that it was akin to "merger by osmosis".
"West Mercia and Warwickshire are operating very, very close to a single force," he said.
Prime Minister David Cameron hailed the crime figures as "good news" at a time of police cuts and thanked the service for its efforts.
"We have asked them to do more with less resources. They have performed, I think, magnificently," he said.