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Guest #5: Rural-Urban policing under the cosh in face of spending cuts, by Mike

I never intended to be a copper. When I left school at 16 I had top honours in two subjects: Girls and motorbikes. While my mates went on to college or took up apprenticeships, I settled for the first job I could get - working on a farm.

It was a small place - 150 acres. I'd been helping out there since I was about 12, forking bales of hay into dusty hot dutch barns, taty-picking and sweeping down the yard on a Saturday morning.
Before health and safety got its teeth into rural life, I would ride back to the farm balanced precariously on top of the trailer load of hay, lashed down with well worn rope, smoking. If I was very good, the farmer would let me take the wheel of the tractor when we were out in the fields.
Apart from girls and bikes, I had one other passion in those days: York City FC  We're talking here about the old Second Division, when the Man Uniteds, Aston Villas and Sunderlands visited Bootham Crescent.
Mike Pannett

Even at 40p, the admission was a bit steep for a farm labourer doing a man's job for a boy's wage, but I soon realised that some of the spectators around me were getting to watch the match for nowt. They served in the local TA, and their home base was the Lumley Barracks, which overlooked the ground.
Several years in the Terriers made a man of me, got me perched on the barrack roof to view a lot of games free of charge, and had me thinking about careers. How I wound up in the Metropolitan Police - and how I got back to God's Own Country 10 years later - is a long story, and will be the subject of a later books. For now, I've had enough tales from North Yorkshire to fill several volumes.

From one day to the next as a country cop, you never know whether you're going to be chasing stolen cars, rescuing flood victims or going off in pursuit of mythical beasts that roam the countryside.
Take a cold January night a few years ago, for example. I was sitting in a lay-by having a drink from my Thermos when the boy racers shot past, doing 80 in a stolen Golf. I gave chase, and soon had a Traffic car involved, plus an Armed Response Vehicle which was in the area.

As my speed hit 105, I learned that reinforcements from York were setting up a road-block. Disaster almost struck when we got to the outskirts. We arranged to have a "stinger" rolled out across the road but could only watch as the runaways skirted round it on the grass verge and one of the pursuing cars ploughed right through it, ripping their tyres to shreds. We got the car thieves in the end, but I left my fellow officers do the explaining. I was off on another call. Twenty minutes after the drama of that high-speed chase I was on my hands and knees, crawling across a snowbound fourteenth green on Ganton Golf Course. A woman had rung in, insisting she'd seen the Ryedale Panther, the notorious "big cat" that supposedly stalks the fields, always just far enough away to avoid a positive ID, and always in the dark.

This time, I was told, there were prints, huge prints, enormous, outlandish prints, perfectly preserved in snow that had fallen a day or two previously. So there I was, on all fours, investigating. All I lacked was a deer-stalker hat and a magnifying glass. When it came on to snow again, heavily, obscuring even my footprints - well, I hope nobody was passing by. God knows what they would have made of me, standing there in full uniform, laughing and shaking my head. The mystery of the panther remains unsolved.

Sometimes laughter is the only response. We know that there's nowt so strange as folk

They're bright lads in the news media - not much escapes them.

They've decided that we're all worried by the current austerity measures, by financial insecurity, rising fuel prices and the ever-increasing pension age - and you can't argue with that. But, as ever, they're only interested in the effects of hard times on our inner cities. They ignore the countryside. So who is shouting for our corner, for the hard-pressed farmers and rural communities?

When I moved to the capital to join the Metropolitan Police, people talked about the North-South divide. I could see it, plain as the nose on your face. I was like a fish out of water. But that was 25 years ago. Right now I think it's the urban-rural divide that needs to be looked at. That's the fault-line running down the backbone of Britain. We know it's the minority in the countryside who feed the majority in the towns, yet the decision-makers, news editors and policy-makers are all city-based, and largely unaware of the special circumstances of rural living.

Even those city slickers who spend their weekends in country hideaways; how in touch are they with the realities of the local economy?

Do they realise how few of us are on mains gas, or the distances we have to travel to reach work, schools or shops? Do they assume farmers still work with horse and plough? As they commute to work on their regular buses and trains, or ferry their children a few hundred yards to school in their Chelsea tractors, do they have the faintest idea how out-of-control fuel prices affect us country people?
Many of us who have served in rural police forces are waiting with bated breath to see where the cutbacks are aimed.

You can bet the prime target will be the front-line - and that will strike at the heart of rural policing. I know only too well what it feels like to confront a car-load of burglars in the middle of nowhere, on your own, knowing that your only back-up is 30 miles away along narrow, twisting roads; or to conduct a man-hunt on the North York Moors and be told the only helicopter in the region is tied up on Humberside.

We are already stretched to the limit, yet we constantly see resources channelled to the areas where the crime figures are highest - namely, the urban centres.
And, as the strength of the country forces is eroded, I find myself wondering where the urban crooks will head next, in search of easier pickings. They're not daft, are they?

Drops in cops

The one advantage we have over the city folk is our sense of community - re-branded by David Cameron as the "big society". We've always looked out for each other. We already have a big society, but how do we maintain it? Country Watch and Farm Watch do a fantastic job, but they need the backup and support of officers in uniform, on the roads and in the villages.
Prince Charles has recently spoken about the way in which unprecedented pressures are picking at the threads of rural life. Without some serious support for our hard-pressed farmers and rural police forces, the very fabric of the countryside could be torn apart.

But we're seeing budget cuts that will have a huge impact on all forces across England and Wales. The smaller rural forces such as North Yorkshire - it's actually the largest county in England - will feel them worst of all. North Yorkshire had 1,650 police officers in 2007 and is bracing itself for a loss of 400, along with some 350 civilian staff. At 1,250, its officer strength will be the lowest in its history.
I'm afraid we're going to have to get used to seeing even less cops on the streets and even fewer patrolling in the rural communities. The system of "fire brigade" policing will become more the norm. Officers will only be seen when responding to an incident - whether we're talking about a burglar alarm, a call from a member of the public, or a cry for help for any number of reasons. Proactive and community policing will have to take a back seat.

Even if the economics are inevitable, why should front-line services have to suffer - why not cut the pay of senior management? Something needs to be done, or we'll soon have the unedifying spectacle of 60-year-old male and female officers tackling violent criminals, street gangs and rioting protesters. How can chief constables spin us the line that they will be able to deliver a better service with such deep cuts?

The working hours of a beat bobby are, to say the least, punishing. It is for any shift worker, but a copper rarely finishes when his or her hours are up. There is frequently a statement to be taken, an arrest procedure to be completed, a report to write - and in this highly litigious age, you don't scrawl a few lines and sling it in, then dash home. You make sure it's water-tight against every argument a lawyer can throw at it. Faced with this kind of stress, is it any wonder that only a few years ago, a police officer in North Yorkshire who worked until retiring age could have expected, on average, no more than five more years of life?

The cuts are affecting us all. As a police officer I saw my share of political demonstrations, but I never expected to see the violence that affected London-Manchester-The Midlands during this summer’s riots. It took 16,000 police officers to bring the riots under control in the capital. It also needed leadership from senior management to step up to the mark. The figure of 16,000 is the amount of officers about to be cut. I think this is the biggest mistake any government will ever make with regards to policing in this country. It will set policing back to the 1970s, and will take years for future governments to put right. I wrote about my own experience of the summer  riots. This is posted on the Hodder web-site.

Someone needs to stand up for the rural & urban communities. So if you're listening, Mr Cameron, Ms May, Mr Herbert  give us a break. And for the record Mr Winsor I repeat a football song “you don’t know what your doing”


Mike Pannett was born in York and joined the Metropolitan Police in 1988. He transferred to North Yorkshire police in 1997. In 2007 Mike left the police to become a full time author. He has written 4 “best selling” books, and his publisher is Hodder. Mike’s 5th book “Up beat down dale” is due to be released in July 2012. A series of Metropolitan policing books is then planned

Mike Pannett 17th February 2012-02-17
“Twitter” @mikepannett

Note from Ollie: Thanks Mike for being another one of my guest bloggers. A very whimsically worded article that gives us a taste of your writing style, and i can assure readers that all your books are written so well. Mike always has something interesting to say about the current climate of policing, but i chose him mainly because of how well he represents the policing of the past. As someone once said; to predict the future you have to look at the past. Anyone who has been part of the police service for even a few weeks will be aware of the political roundabout we are all on. When there is wide scale change, officers often deal with it by knowing that within 5 years we will be back to where we started. Mike's books show us some areas where we have already done that, but they also predict others where we will be heading in the next few years. Thanks Mike.