Polling Stations, Number 3

I had to think quite hard to remember what the first elections of this year were about. I remembered the second — those were for MEPs, of course, but what were the first ones about? Oh yes, the erstwhile North of Tyne & Northumberland mayor, of course. Well. To quote a phrase made memorable by Diane Keaton as Woody Allen’s Annie Hall: la de da. La de da.

So today we collectively elect a new Police & Crime Commissioner for the Northumbria catchment area, which includes Tyne & Wear, as Dame Vera Baird has taken on a national role as Victim’s Commissioner, thereby creating a need for a by-election — the next election for PCC is to be held in May of 2020. I imagine that the winner of this by-election will face a re-election challenge in less than a year. I can feel the yawns emanating across hundreds of breakfast kitchens.

We do have crime and victims here in the Allen Valleys, but the honest truth is that there is very little of it about. Sometimes a gang will travel through, checking out the pickings (mostly easy car thefts or quad farm bikes). There’s more petty vandalism around, I believe, than the serious sort of crime, although the odd murder or armed robbery does occur. These incidents are possibly the more shocking by virtue of their rarity, yet they illustrate that not even Allendale is immune to some criminal activity. But five-plus years on from the first election of our Police & Crime Commissioner, it’s fair to ask: what do these elected officials really do for us? Is the PCC more of an urban job than a rural one?

Well, from her WikiPedia website, Dame Baird was first elected in November 2012, and was successfully re-elected in May 2016, campaigning “to champion neighbourhood policing, improve how anti-social behaviour and drug crime are dealt with and prioritise tackling violence against women.” These are very worthy ambitions, but challenging to monitor effectively. Especially as budget cuts to the police force over that period have made improvements in service that much more difficult to achieve, I should imagine.

But some of Dame Baird’s accomplishments sound impressive: creating a better system for monitoring nightclub bouncers which was taken up by the door staff professional body; developing a network of workplace champions to assist in the event of domestic abuse; creating Specialist Domestic Abuse Court Volunteer Observers. It seems good to have a kind of ombudsperson, which is what I imagine the PCC’s role really is, to oversee the workings of the police, the courts, and the handling of the victims of crime. Certainly Dame Baird’s majority increased significantly for her second term as she proved her worth; in the course of her service as Northumbria’s PCC, the political parties agreed that the role was indeed worthwhile in context.

So today we vote for a new person in that role. Or not: probably the turnout will be on the order of 10-15% again, of eligible voters. When the police are called on only rarely, up here in these valleys, it’s hard to get excited about the role of Police and Crime Commissioner. But when we need a special supporter in the event we become victims ourselves, that would be the time we’d be glad if we’ve got a PCC who really cares.

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