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Cuts and the countryside copper

Friday 15 October 2010

Our countryside commentator John Sheard ponders on the future or rural policing when the cuts fall – and hopes that town-based bobbies learn some country ways

Your hear some daft stories in this job but few bettered the one that came out this week from a normally very conservative countryside body, the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation. Like many of us, the NGO is worried about the state or rural policing and, more directly, the state of mind of certain town-based police officers.

These men, and increasingly women, patrol vast areas of our countryside from their bases in the towns and cities but, so it seems, don’t know a great deal about country life.

Which is why, says the NGO, they stopped a group from the York and Ainsty Hunt kennels out exercising their hounds and demanded: “Why are these dogs not on a lead?”(See News).

To me, who was taken to my first hunt meet at a child of perhaps three or four, this seemed absolutely hilarious: I remember to this day being surrounded by tail-wagging hounds and having my face licked clean until my mother dragged me away.

Funny, eh? But there is a much more serious side to this which illustrates the ever widening understanding gap between town and country. For a survey by the gamekeepers of various police operations in rural areas reported incidents which cost the taxpayers a great deal of cash – and could have had potentially lethal outcomes.

On at least to occasions, police helicopters were launched after walkers complained of men with guns whom, they feared, could be terrorists. On both occasions, these men were taking part in perfectly legal shoots and, unless I am mistaken, probably looked and dressed as little like a terrorist as could be imagined: typical English country gentlemen in fact.

But police in a terrorist alert tend to have in their number trained firearms officers and – as we have seen in London and Cumbria in the past few years – people can end up dead when misunderstandings occur.

Since the rights to roam acts were passed by New Labour, says the NGO, incidents when the police have been called to perfectly innocent events have soared. And the main reason for that – yet another example of the gaping divide between town and country – is the number of town-based people at large in once private parts of rural areas with mobile phones in their pockets.

What worries me is how few there are of them in the Yorkshire Dales...

These people, who profess to love the open air, are alarmingly uninformed when it comes to country affairs. They have been reported as releasing magpies and crows from perfectly legal, humane traps, not knowing that these birds are an ever-increasing threat to other birds by stealing their eggs and even their nestlings. Magpies in particular are natural born killers.

When it comes to the policing here in the Yorkshire Dales, however, I am less worried about “townie” bobbies than the coming cuts, despite the “hounds on leads” incident which probably involved policemen based in York. What worries me is how few there are of them in the Yorkshire Dales.

Time was when virtually every large community had its own villager bobby, who lived in a police house and knew everyone by name, including the local youths most likely to get into a bit of bother. Just how many of them were deterred from a criminal future by a clip round the ear from that bobby can never be calculated.

Virtually all those police houses have now been sold off – often at a handsome profit – yet local police taxes have more than doubled in less than a decade: they went up by 70% in a single year not long ago. Yet Skipton Police Station, covering one of the bigger towns in the county, is now only open office hours.

Huge areas of the Dales are covered from Harrogate and it can take 30 minutes or more for a squad car to get from there to most parts of the Dales. The main reason for this is the way that, for more than a decade, New Labour diverted police funds from the countryside to the inner cities, where most of their voters live.

Now we have a Coalition government run mainly by the Tories, who are by long tradition pro-police. But the country is broke and mega cuts are on the way. Add to that, hundreds of policeman recruited by Maggie Thatcher are due to retire at more or less the same time. Will they be replaced?

Quite frankly, I doubt it in the present financial climate. So what can be done to save costs whilst at the same time maintaining reasonable standards of rural policing?

First, the Government could scrap the New Labour red tape that keeps coppers filling in forms instead of being out on the beat. Then they could scrap 24-hour pub opening, which has turned even our market towns into the Wild West at weekends. And they should send their town-bound officers to the country-ways lectures being organised by the gamekeepers. Then they won’t be troubled by free-running fox hounds!

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