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Crime: the Sheffield bobby and the Settle saddle

Friday 27 January 2006

Our countryside commentator John Sheard mulls over future attempts to control rural crime if North Yorkshire police are amalgamated into a Yorkshire super-force

A COUPLE of years ago, I wrote a small but I thought significant story about a lady acquaintance of mine who in an act of public spiritedness telephoned the police in the early hours of the morning because she was worried about three young men lurking outside a rather nice house near Aireville Park in Skipton.

It was not her house, and she could have gone back to bed rather than get involved, but she feared that one of her neighbours was about to be burgled. So she dialled the police and waited. And waited. And waited.

When the call was finally answered, she was stunned to find out that the bobby on the line was a constable based in... Whitby! He knew, of course, where Skipton was but, not surprisingly, he had never heard of Aireville Park. So didn't know where to send a squad car, assuming one was available somewhere in the wide open spaces between the North Sea Coast and the South West Yorkshire Dales.

City police and rural crime?
City police & rural crime?

As it happened, the three suspicious youths, obviously the worse for wear from drink, staggered on their way and, as far as we know, no crime was committed. But that night, my elderly lady lost her faith in the ability of the police to protect her should her own home be attacked in the early hours. She has never regained it.

Skipton Police Station, you see, works office hours. It is closed at night when - surprise, surprise - most crime takes place. North Yorkshire Police, strapped for cash mainly to pay handsome pensions for retired officers, had installed an automatic communications system which passes any incoming calls around the county until someone picked up the phone.

On that particular night, that person happened to be just about as far as possible away as it is possible to be and still be in North Yorkshire. So guess how it would have been if he had been in, say, Hull or Sheffield. Would he even have known where Skipton was, never mind the park?

I ask this question because, as we reported on Wednesday North Yorkshire Police Authority was one of many smaller rural forces which sent representatives to London to lobby MPs against Government proposals to scrap most of them and amalgamate them into "super-forces" based in the major cities.

The following day, the national media reported that the protestors were almost certainly wasting their time: the Home Office is determined to go ahead because it believes that bigger forces are better at combating terrorism and organised crime.

It will also save a lot of money, politicians claim, but I take that with a barrow-load of salt: every amalgamation that government has tried since World War II has ended up costing a fortune. Since the widespread introduction of computer systems, those wasted millions have turned into billions because no one in Whitehall understands IT (perhaps they should ask my whiz-kid colleagues at Daelnet?). Please see News re the present chaos in the Rural Payment Agency for the latest example.

However, what worries me most about these potential amalgamations is that all experience shows that in very big organisations, power and available resources are sucked into head office. In this case that would mean Leeds, Bradford, Hull or Sheffield. York, I suppose, is an outside possibility, but building a new super-HQ will cost the taxpayers millions wherever it is.

The sad fact is that, for the past decade or so, rural crime has been on a steady upward course. Police methods of targeting known criminals in urban areas, plus public co-operation projects like Neighbourhood Watch, have driven the bad guys further and further into the countryside.

My family has been burgled twice. The first time, the gang was suspected of coming from Liverpool, the second from Middlesborough. Prime targets for thieves are equestrian tack and quad bikes. My question is: would a bobby in Sheffield be galvanised into action by the theft of a saddle in Settle? Don't make me laugh...

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