Get more from a copper without paying a penny

IT’S been a common middle-class complaint as long as I can remember that there aren’t enough police officers.

More particularly, that the police aren’t visible enough. That we need more bobbies on the beat.

Now this, I’d say, is arguable.

Those who shout it loudest are often the same people who complain most strongly when they’re nicked for speeding.

“Why,” they will wail, “aren’t the police out doing their real job – looking for criminals?”

Conveniently overlooking the fact that driving above the speed limit is a crime.

A more dangerous one, indeed, than breaking into someone’s house, nicking their credit card – or looting from a damaged shopfront.

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But all those are events that occur in the real world. The not-enough-bobbies plea owes more to nostalgia for a world that never really was.

An England of cream teas, roses round the cottage door and cheery village plods on bone-shaker bicycles. (Though if I lived in those murder capitals Midsomer or St Mary Mead, I’d want more than a jovial bobby on a bike to protect me.)

Or, to put it in an urban environment, a world in which genial Sergeant Dixon could sum up every criminal incident with a cheery “Evening, all!”

Nevertheless, the common cry for police visibility is one that carries real political weight. All the major parties have been swayed by it for decades.

Now a right-wing “think-tank” has come up with a brilliant solution.

An ingenious way of making the police more visible even at a time when the Tories are gleefully ravaging the public purse.

All police officers, they declare, should be made to wear uniform while travelling to and from work.

Hey presto – suddenly there are cops to be seen everywhere. On the bus. On the tube. On the school run. In the local after clocking-off time.

Great. That’ll keep us all on the straight and narrow.

Now let’s look at it again from the police officer’s viewpoint.

In the village where I grew up, everyone knew the local copper. He lived in the police house. It seemed to work.

In a town or city it’s different.

There are plenty of places where you might not want your neighbours to know what you did for a living.

Places you might not feel safe if they did – or if people you met in the course of your duties might be able to track you down.

It might not be good for your kids to be dropped off at school by a parent in uniform.

And if you should happen to get involved in an official capacity while doing the shopping, say, are your family supposed to get involved too? As unpaid civilian deputies?

Like so many outpourings of “think-tanks”, this idea has more tank about it than think.

It reveals the true right-wing attitude to working people – in this case, the police, but it could be any working people.

That they are merely a resource to be used, a factor to be deployed. Not real people with real lives.

The think-tankers think it’s a great way of saving money on police wages. Effectively getting each officer to put in hours more work each week for no extra pay.

Or, to put it another way, robbing them.

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BIG builders and developers are delighted with the government’s proposed changes to national planning laws. Which should tell us all we need to know about them.

Other organisations – those which exist to protect things, not to make money out of them – are not so keen.

The key idea is that getting planning permission will become easier – “a presumption in favour of sustainable development”.

Among those worried are the Campaign to Protect Rural England, whose chief executive Shaun Spiers says: “The new framework will make the countryside and local character much less safe from damaging and unnecessary development.”

Martin Harper of the RSPB says: “The planning system is there to represent the interests of the public in the face of complex decisions, and it will fail us all if one factor – economic growth – is set higher than any other.”

Even the National Trust, with its in-built leaning towards conservatism with both a small and a large ‘C’, is upset.

Dame Fiona Reynolds, the director general, says: “With these changes comes a huge risk to our countryside, historic environment and the precious local places that are so important for us all. The planning reforms could lead to unchecked and damaging development on a scale not seen since the 1930s.”

“Reform” as a euphemism for “wrecking” – it’s a common theme of this government.

Replacing a complex 1,000 pages of rules with a succinct 52-page cover-all might sound like a good idea to anyone except a lawyer.

But it could mean catastrophe for huge swathes of the British countryside.

Which in a county like Suffolk – beautiful, rural, but within dangerous distance of London – could be very bad news indeed.