Calls have grown from across the political spectrum for Leeds’s cohort of civilian beat bobbies to be protected, in the wake of concerns that they could be axed due to severe Government budget cuts.
The calls come after the YEP revealed last week that hundreds of Police Community Suppport Officer (PCSO) jobs across West Yorkshire could be scrapped as cash-strapped police bosses bid to save millions of pounds.
West Yorkshire Police currently employs 612 PCSOs, who provide frontline assistance to police officers, with 248 pounding the streets in Leeds alone. Leeds City Council co-funds 165 of the positions in the 33 wards, with the police paying fully for additional city centre roles.
Now the main opposition Conservative group in Leeds has called for reassurances that the current five-per-ward arrangement for Leeds council wards will be protected. It comes after it also emerged that a lack of consensus between the five local authorities in West Yorkshire was threatening the very existence of the region’s PCSO cohort.
Councillor Amanda Carter, Conservative Community Safety spokesman, said: “It is interesting that this week we have seen a commitment by the West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner that he remains committed to bobbies on the beat and neighbourhood policing.
“Yet here we have a suggestion that in fact numbers could be reduced in 2016 because there is a dispute between councils in West Yorkshire about whether the scheme should continue.
“Our position is clear. We are firmly committed to neighbourhood policing and fully support retaining the five PCSOs per ward that have been so popular in all wards in the city over the past 10 years.”
Councillor Andrew Carter, leader of the Conservative group, added: “The administration has to find a solution to this in-fighting in West Yorkshire and re-commit to this very effective policy as soon as possible.”
Councillor Peter Gruen, who previously held the council’s cabinet portfolio for Safer Leeds, said that PCSOs provide a vital visible presence, which is especially important in reassuring elderly and more vulnerable residents.
He said that “we ignore at our peril” the warnings over the team’s future, but stressed the root cause should not be overlooked.
“People in Leeds need to wake up and understand the ferocity of the national Government’s public cuts agenda, which is the real cause for this debate,” he said,
PCSOs cost West Yorkshire taxpayers about £5m a year to run, with the police paying 80 per cent of the bill for Leeds, and the council paying 20 per cent.
Leeds is among the five West Yorkshire councils who contribute to an £85m precept pot for West Yorkshire Police.
But the force now has to find savings of £13.4m in staff costs over the next three years to help plug an overall £163m shortfall in Government funding. A recruitment freeze is already in place and the YEP understands around 50 PCSO roles are currently unfilled.
The current funding - already supported by local level bailouts - runs out in March, and the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement is not expected to bring any good news.
The debate about the future of the region’s PCSOs was fuelled last week, when one senior police officer revealed that a “problematic conversation” is being had at force level about the question of “Should we have PCSOs at all?”.
Supt Sam Millar was speaking before an internal watchdog committee of Leeds City Council, which contributes £30m to the West Yorkshire Police precept.
She said: “Leeds is by far and away the most vocal supporter of PCSOs. So we are not having an easy conversation.
“The problematic conversation at force level is ‘should we have PCSOs at all?’”