The safety of London is at risk from budget cuts which could mean the loss of up to 8,000 police officers in the capital, the head of Scotland Yard said today.
Met chief Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe said his force was faced with massive spending curbs of around £1 billion over the next four years.
He declared the savings would mean huge cuts to front line officers and warned they could damage the Met’s ability to prevent and respond to a major terrorist outrage.
His comments, in an exclusive interview with the Standard, mark the first time he has spoken out in detail against austerity measures which have already seen the force make £600 million in savings.
The Met’s policing budget is expected to be reduced by £800 million or more over the next four years in a spending review to be announced next month. A new funding formula for police forces could also mean a further £180 million cutback in its annual budget, as revealed by the Standard yesterday.
Sir Bernard said: ”It’s a lot of money and a massive change and as a result of that I genuinely worry about the safety of London.
“We think we can expect to lose somewhere between 5,000 to 8,000 police officers.”
He added: “For the past four years we have taken cuts in budget and we have just got on with it. We have not waved shrouds – we are the only force to have kept police officer numbers up, today they stand at about 31,800.”
However, he warned that the new round of budget curbs will take the Met back to the 1970s, the era featured in the popular TV police series Life on Mars.
Sir Bernard said: “We are having to face today’s and tomorrow’s challenges with resources going back to the 1970s. That’s when London had a population of around six million, today we are 8.6 million and we believe it will rise to about 9 million in 2020.”
He added: “What is really important for us about policing London is that it is the economic engine for the country, the reason people come here is because they feel safe, whether it is businesses or people who want to bring the kids up or people want to grow old here.
“They come here because it’s a great city to be safe in. One of the challenges for us is in keeping it safe with reduced numbers.
“We would prefer this did not happen but we need to explain to the public that big change is coming along.”
For the first time the commissioner spelt out the range of possible cuts facing London and warned they would lead to :
• Fewer police officers patrolling the streets.
• Police taking longer to get to non-emergency calls such as burglaries where life was not at risk.
• Cuts to dedicated officers in London schools.
• More closures of police stations – leaving just 100 police buildings in the city.
• An end to policing based on London’s 32 boroughs.
In addition, as revealed earlier this month, the Met’s PCSOs are also facing the axe and further cuts are expected to be made to the Met’s leadership ranks.
Sir Bernard said it was ironic that while London’s force was facing cutbacks, New York – which has a smaller population – was expanding its force.
He also voiced concerns at the Met’s ability to maintain the number of its firearms officers with a smaller pool of officers.
He questioned whether the Met would have the capability to respond to a major terrorist incident such as a roaming firearms attack such as the Mumbai atrocity.
He said: “Should we get a roaming firearms attack could we deal with it? With a smaller force can we maintain firearms ability?”
The police chief said the ability to deal with a major incident – or the London riots of 2011 – would be harder and the police response “less flexible.”
Sir Bernard pledged that the Met would still respond to all burglaries, citing the “horrible” attack on Michael Winner’s widow Geraldine in Knightsbridge as an example of the serious nature of the crime.
But he admitted: “We would have to “re-profile” neighbourhood policing, we have got to get to emergencies and I would want to have some neighbourhood policing everywhere” but he said some areas such as Westminster would inevitably see more officers than outlying boroughs. “It will get pretty twitchy in terms of coverage of London”, he said.
“There would be less visibility. There would less of it in the neighbourhoods and in our response section. There is no doubt that we would be slower.”
He also warned the “compound effect” of cuts in the wider sector such as councils would mean less CCTV coverage affecting the investigation of murder, terrorism and gangs.
Speaking about the decision to remove the guard on Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy he said the savings were “relatively small” and the reason was more because “it seems a disproportionate response to continue with it and we think the public are not necessarily supportive of it.”
However, he said there was still covert policing in place and police meant to arrest the Wikileaks founder if he left the premises.