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Solihull Police Station: Proposed Closure

Volume 706: debated on Tuesday 11 January 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Scott Mann.)

I will open my remarks by paying due regard briefly—I know that the House will have a longer time to do this—to Jack Dromey, the late, departed, much missed Member for Birmingham, Erdington. Jack believed wholeheartedly in policing and he always believed in cross-party working. He was a friend of mine and, like many people, I am very deeply saddened by his loss. He would have been here tonight very much contributing to this debate, so he is much missed. I know that the House will have longer to pay tribute and I know that my colleagues will join me in those comments.

When we worked on policing, we did so with my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood), my good friend, to effectively raise the precept from its ceiling to provide greater resource for West Midlands police. As a result, band A, B and E properties in my constituency will pay a direct precept of £217 each year to the Labour police and crime commissioner for the west midlands. As a Conservative, I am not proud of that. I do not want to see tax money going in that direction, with such a high rise in taxes. In fact, £13.7 million has come from Solihull alone.

The reason why the departed Member for Birmingham, Erdington and my hon. Friend worked together on this was that we knew that there was a situation—as the famous note said, there was no money left—in which there had to be a series of financial savings across many parts of Government, and we wanted to help with the rebalancing of that. The agreement that we made at that point does not match what we have now seen—frankly, it was not about inflation-busting rises every year in order to more than make up for any previous deficit.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. In Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton we are losing all three of our police stations. People up the road in Aldridge were promised a consultation—indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) has been fighting hard to make sure that that police station is safe. My hon. Friend just talked about the agreement; does he agree that a key part of that agreement is the principle that there will be consultation and that it is utterly disgraceful to disregard it in the way that the PCC has?

It is an absolute shambles, frankly. The announcement was originally made in a press release and, basically, the same insult has been followed through. We all knew what the result was going to be as soon as the PCC election was decided. Lo and behold, here we are with a PCC in the West Midlands who has been elected through Momentum. If we look around the Chamber, we can see that it is Conservative Members whose local police stations are being closed. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and although my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) cannot speak in tonight’s debate, she is also a fervent defender of her local police station.

We hoped that the money that we agreed to would be adequately spent. Let us have a look at it for a moment. More than £20 million has been spent on Lloyd House, the PCC’s head office—that is a lot of wallpaper, is it not? When the previous PCC’s original decision about the police station was announced, without consultation, there was more than £100 million in the reserves. That would keep my local police station going for more than a century. The £20 million-plus that has been wasted—well, not wasted but spent, or I suppose they would say it has been invested; I would say, “Nice comfortable chairs—£20 million”—would effectively keep my local police station open for 40 years. Despite the Metropolitan Borough of Solihull having contributed £13.7 million in precept allocations in this financial year, we are about to be robbed of our main police station.

I am hearing loud and clear that we have a police and crime commissioner who is failing constituents not just in Solihull but throughout the West Midlands—he is certainly failing the constituents in Stourbridge. Does my hon. Friend agree that the consistent problem with the police and crime commissioner is that he is continually closing police stations and not reopening them, which was the promise? He certainly promised to me to reopen the police station in Stourbridge and that has not yet happened.

It is a familiar story from my hon. Friend. I will come on to the promises that have been broken over this period.

Let me be absolutely clear: I stand against the proposal to permanently close Solihull police station. The plans will leave my constituency without an operational policing base. I know that my constituents stand with me in opposing the plans. Just before the Christmas recess, I launched a petition with my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti), whose constituency is also greatly impacted by the proposals. To date, more than 700 residents from across the borough have signed the petition. That is in addition to the 3,000 who signed the previous time the Labour police and crime commissioner came knocking. I put on record my thanks to my local residents and councillors and to my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden for supporting the petition.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Does he agree that this is not an either/or situation? Constituents in the north and south of my constituency deserve adequate police resources. The Labour police and crime commissioner has taken a political decision to undermine the safety and security of residents throughout the Metropolitan Borough of Solihull.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Actually, the police and crime commissioner has tried to play my hon. Friend and me off against each other by suggesting there will be extra investment in the north of the borough and that that will somehow make a difference in the south of the borough. Everyone knows that the distances are large and the challenges are much different. Frankly, as I will come to say, 125,000 residents in my constituency and beyond, including in parts of my hon. Friend’s constituency, will be left without a major police presence.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the disgraceful proposal also includes closing the main police station in the royal town of Sutton Coldfield? The only people who support this appalling decision are the two Labour Birmingham city councillors. Is not the right answer to build a police hub to serve my town of 100,000 people, with all the relevant police infrastructure, rather than to replace it all with a front counter that is not open all hours? Will my hon. Friend join me in praising Simon Ward, the leader of Royal Sutton Coldfield Town Council, for his motion condemning the decision, and Janet Cairns, a councillor and community activist who has campaigned forcefully against the dreadful proposals?

I concur with my right hon. Friend. The royal town of Sutton Coldfield has been in the trenches with me over the last few years following this disgraceful attack on our constituents, which is completely unnecessary for the reasons I will now outline.

I accept it is easy to speak against a police station closure, so I hope Members will allow me to outline what I believe to be the legitimate reasons why Solihull police station must remain open. First, it primarily serves the south of Solihull borough, which includes my constituency and some of the villages in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, including Dickens Heath, Dorridge, Knowle and Hampton in Arden. We are talking about a population of around 127,000 residents. The fact that an area with such a dense population is going to lose its only operational police base is nothing less than a scandal and a travesty.

It is also important to remember that in 2015 the previous Labour police and crime commissioner closed Shirley police station. My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Suzanne Webb) and I were told that, magically, there would be a police presence, and what has happened? Absolutely zilch.

My hon. Friend has alluded to the previous police and crime commissioner closing various police stations in Dudley borough, including Stourbridge, Kingswinford and Netherton among others. When he announced that Brierley Hill police station would be closing in the next two or three years to open a new police station in Dudley town centre, moving our only remaining police station from the centre of the borough to the far corner of the borough, he promised that a meaningful police presence would remain in Brierley Hill town centre. Does my hon. Friend agree that it needs to be a proper police station with officers operating out of it, not just a locker and an office?

I completely concur with my hon. Friend, and we are in a similar situation. Frankly, cars will have to come from Tally Ho and Coventry, which is far too long a response time for my constituents.

In response to my constituents’ rightful frustrations, the police and crime commissioner stated in his estate review that

“locations for public contact offices in Solihull and Sutton will continue to be explored”.

That is very big of him. There is absolutely no commitment to give Solihull a public contact office. A number of questions have been raised as to what a public contact office really means. Reference has been made to it merely being a desk in a library with someone wearing a bit of hi-vis. For 127,000 people a desk in a library, 9 to 3, hi-vis—that is it, done. It is absolutely ridiculous, a travesty and a disgrace.

How can I honestly encourage my constituents to report crime, particularly crime of a personal and sensitive nature, to a police desk in the middle of a public space that is open only at certain hours and where they do not know precisely to whom they are speaking? What if one of my constituents suffering from physical and emotional abuse does not, for whatever reason, have access to a telephone and wants to seek refuge in a secure policing environment? That will now not be available anywhere in my large town.

As my constituent Mr Thompson of Compton Close—not the other Mr Thompson—put it brilliantly:

“We have already suffered the closure of the Shirley police station. It’s clear this next step is unacceptable to all Silhillians. Solihull residents deserve more than the muted ‘desk’ to take concerns. We deserve and should expect a local Police station with officers to respond directly to our needs.”

The police and crime commissioner tries to defend this cruel decision to close Solihull police station by using the usual line from the Opposition Benches, which are empty tonight, that West Midlands police has suffered from cuts and austerity. In a press release, he stated that once again—

“a decade of reckless Government cuts.”

Home Office data on direct money shows that from 2018-19 to 2021-22 it has gone up from £442 million to £694 million—an uplift of £250 million in four years. So, in light of the substantial increase in direct subsidies from the Home Office, straight into the PCC’s office, we have to ask ourselves why on earth he has decided to put forward plans to permanently close our police stations, when funding is proportionally higher than it was many years ago.

I would also draw the House’s attention to the fact that, as a result of more Government funding to the Labour police and crime commissioner, West Midlands police has managed to recruit hundreds of new police officers. Indeed, it admits in a statement that since the general election, this Conservative Government have managed to recruit 867 police officers across the west midlands. With the hundreds of additional police officers on the beat across the west midlands, particularly in Solihull, the PCC clearly forgets that we need adequate space to house those new officers. By closing Solihull police stations and those of my hon. Friends, and other stations across the west midlands, the PCC is drastically reducing the size of the constabulary’s estate just as the police force is growing, which means fewer desks, less officers and a reduction in the number of cells.

I am sure hon. Members know just how often we are contacted by our constituents about the levels of crime in our areas. I am contacted daily by constituents about the concern that exists about the substantial rise in crime across Solihull, which has been going on for many years. In particular the fear of violent crime, knife crime and burglary is a real concern to my residents. In December 2019 we had the murder of 21-year-old Jack Donoghue outside Popworld; he was simply enjoying a night out.

Lockdown has created difficulties in assessing crime statistics. However, despite our not having the full crime statistics for 2020-21, I can confirm to the House that of those that are already reported, 666 individual cases of violent crime have been reported in Solihull in the last year alone. That is already a massive increase on the data for 2020, when we had 574 such incidents. Undoubtedly, West Midlands police has a reputation—a very unwelcome reputation—for suffering large-scale knife crimes. What is the answer, I ask? Well, the answer of this police and crime commissioner is first to stop stop and search; that is a great way to stop knife crime. And the other one is to close our police stations, despite the huge uplift in moneys that come, not only from the precept, but from central Government.

My constituents deserve better. They deserve permanent policing. Theirs is a large town, a vibrant town, a town with many older residents who need the safety and protection that is the very basic that we all ask for ourselves and our society.

It is no secret that I have always been sceptical about the role of police and crime commissioner. In the financial year 2019-20—and who can blame him, frankly—the West Midlands PCC’s office spent £437,000 on salaries for the PCC, his deputies and the senior statutory officers alone, money that I believe should instead be spent on frontline national policing.

To conclude, if we are not going to get rid of the role of police and crime commissioner—and I would be absolutely delighted if we did—we have to fold it into the role of the Mayor of the West Midlands, someone who actually knows what he is doing and is not an ideologue, and does not think that the cure for knife crime is less stop and search.

My hon. Friend is making a brilliant speech. I agree that there is some scepticism about police and crime commissioners, because when we set them up, earlier in the period of Conservative Government, we were very keen that police and crime commissioners should stand up for the public, so that they were really well represented when the police made decisions. Is not that the great failure this time, in his patch and in mine—that the police and crime commissioner is not reflecting the heartfelt views and opinions of the people that we represent?

My right hon. Friend has obviously been reading my speech.

My final challenge to the police and crime commissioner is this: prove us wrong. Prove that you are not partisan. Prove to us that you are committed to your job—that of protecting the residents of the west midlands. And by so doing, acknowledge that you have had the uplift in money, you have had the extra precept, and do not close our police stations.

Before I begin, may I offer my condolences to the family of Jack Dromey? I did not know him well, but in all our dealings, he was always polite and respectful. He was a party man to the last. I saw him last just before Christmas in Westminster Hall where he had sponsored a debate, seeking, with his Labour party colleagues, to defend the decision of the police and crime commissioner in the west midlands to raise the precept by the full £10. I am sure that he will be missed by many, including me.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) for securing this debate and allowing me to address what is obviously an extremely important issue across the west midlands that has excited so many colleagues to come along and defend the interests of their constituents.

I should start by saying from the outset that I hope the Government have demonstrated their commitment to supporting the police in the past couple of years. They perform a unique role in our society. They are on the frontline of the fight against crime and absolutely critical to the foremost duty of any Government of keeping the public safe. This is a mission of the utmost importance to us and one that we are embarking on with tenacity and relentless determination that the law-abiding majority would expect. I hope that our actions bear this out.

For 2022-23, we are proposing funding for the policing system of up to £16.9 billion, equating to an increase of up to £1.1 billion when compared with last year. For the west midlands, this means that funding will be up to £694.9 million in 2022-23, an increase of up to £39.4 million on the 2021-22 police funding settlement, and, as my hon. Friend pointed out, a significant increase over the past four years.

At the spending review last year, it was announced that the three-year settlement had secured an additional £540 million for the police uplift programme by 2024-25, enabling forces to recruit and maintain the full 20,000 police officer uplift provided for by our recruitment campaign emanating from our manifesto. I am confident that, in the future, with this funding settlement and the funding announced at the spending review in October, police forces will have the necessary resources and capabilities to perform their vital function and keep our citizens safe from harm.

Strengthening police numbers is a key priority, and I am pleased to say that we are halfway to meeting our 20,000-officer target. As of 30 September, forces had recruited 11,053 additional officers. Of this figure, as my hon. Friend said, west midlands police had recruited 867 additional officers, a significant uplift in resources. We expect this outstanding progress to continue into the third year of the programme.

Although we will always play an active role in public protection and crime fighting, it is important that we always remember that local accountability is vital. That is why all operational decisions, including those on the number of police stations and their locations, are for chief constables and for the directly elected police and crime commissioners, and Mayors where they have PCC functions. They are, we hope, best placed to make such decisions based on their local knowledge and experience.

My hon. Friend, along with his colleagues, is obviously expressing significant dissatisfaction about the decisions of the police and crime commissioner. In his speech, he raised three substantive points that I want to address. First, he raised the issue of funding. I have addressed that in correspondence with the police and crime commissioner and, indeed, in the Westminster Hall debate that was called by the Labour party just before Christmas. He is right to point out that there has been a significant uplift in funding for the west midlands police, which will result in a significant number of police officers being recruited. They do need somewhere to operate from. He is quite right in his assertion that whatever plans may have been laid as a property strategy for the west midlands, it would seem sensible to me—and I am sure to him—to at the very least review them in the light of the expansion of police resources and to be sure that every part of the west midlands receives an adequate service, and, critically, that police response times from those bases are acceptable. In some parts of the country, we have seen police officers operating from patrol bases or stations, where they naturally keep their kit, that are some distance from where they need to get to operationally. That wasted time is inefficient. As the money we are giving for the uplift includes resources for things like buildings, equipment, cars and all the ancillary support mechanisms, I hope that all police and crime commissioners, including the west midlands PCC, will review that issue.

The second issue is that I hear repeatedly from the police and crime commissioner in the west midlands that his financial situation is down to the actions of the Conservative Government and that somehow austerity was uniquely targeted at West Midlands police, which was somehow singled out—unlike other police forces, from which I do not hear the same issues. That is patently untrue, not least because police funding is distributed by a legally enforceable formula that does not discriminate by area: there is no discretion as to distribution. The formula may well be elderly, and we have given a commitment to review it—I hope to be able to run the new formula before the next election—but to say that somehow the financial problems of West Midlands police are down to the Government, when other police forces are faring much better, is economical with the actualité, shall we say.

In truth, the situation in the west midlands is the product of decisions made by the police and crime commissioner’s predecessor. In the Westminster Hall debate, I challenged the Opposition about why other forces were in a different position. What different decisions have they made during the past decade that have put them at an advantage over West Midlands police and meant that they have not had to take such steps?

I am perfectly happy to take the consequences of and shoulder the responsibility for austerity. I was not in this House at the time, but I recognise that the country had to do something about its finances, and thank God we did—if we had not, what state would we have been in now and during the pandemic? There were consequences to that, but it cannot be a sustainable argument to say that all West Midlands police’s successes are down to the Labour party and that all the problems are down to the Conservative Government. Labour has to take responsibility for the decisions that it took on police stations, the balance between officers and staff, or the deployment of resources generally. What is the point of someone standing for election if they do not feel that they will make a difference?

The third point, which was raised powerfully by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), is about the police and crime commissioner listening to local people. I was technically the first police and crime commissioner in the country: back in January 2012, London went ahead of everywhere else by five months, and for that small period I was in the unique position of being the only PCC. I believe in that position, because the replacement of the old police authorities, which were faceless, nameless, known to nobody and had very little accountability to the public, was critical. We wanted to replace them with a named individual, elected by mandate. Once the election had been fought on party lines, that individual could then do what we all do: seek to serve all our constituents equally, irrespective of how they might have voted or of who their councillors, MPs or other representatives might be.

Given the anger that has been expressed today and in the Westminster Hall debate, in which my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) complained that promises to him about a police station had been broken, it feels as if the consultation may have gone awry. If I were the police and crime commissioner in any area, I would do as I did in London: seek to build a coalition of support politically for what we were trying to do. The work of the police is difficult, challenging and often confrontational, so ensuring that coalition of support is critical. When we hear that party interests are possibly being put ahead of building that coalition, and when those loyalties are not laid aside, it can be concerning. I am alarmed to hear that in Sutton Coldfield there is dissent—albeit small in number—on the council about the protection of people in the area, and that consensus cannot be built in the area about the disposition of resources.

The Minister is responding brilliantly to the debate, but can I just be quite clear that everyone in Sutton Coldfield is against these monstrous proposals? The only people I can find in the entire town who are in favour are the two Labour Birmingham city councillors.

My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. As I have said, my view is that once elections are done, all of us in elected office must seek to build consensus about what we are doing. We cannot expect always to agree with everybody, but we must do our best to ensure, first, that we are listening; secondly, that we are being fair in communicating our decisions; and thirdly, that we are fulfilling the promises we made to the electorate.

I will be in the west midlands on Thursday to review preparations for the Commonwealth games, which hopefully will be a cause for great celebrations across the whole of the west midlands, and indeed across the whole of the Commonwealth. I will be having conversations with the police and crime commissioner about this and other matters, not least violent crime in Birmingham. We have put in significant funding through our grip programme and the violence reduction unit to try to get on top of that problem in the west midlands. When I see him, I will express my surprise that, at a moment of really unprecedented expansion in British policing, when UK policing is stepping forward much more confidently than it has in the past, I have heard such a chorus of distress from elected representatives from across the region. I hope that will give him cause to reflect on his role.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.