Should the police have to respond highways hazards when council staff have gone off duty?
A councillor has claimed that county hall is doing a 'disservice' to people who need the police by recommending residents dial 101 to report urgent problems with the roads at night.
Lancashire County Council no longer operates an out-of-hours telephone service to receive reports of any highways issues which require immediate attention. Instead, the authority’s website directs anybody who has spotted a hazard to the non-emergency number for Lancashire Police.
But David Whipp told a meeting of the council’s internal scrutiny committee that the recommendation risks putting the police under pressure - and condemning callers to being left on hold.
“The wait times for 101 are perhaps not as good as for the [county council] service - 45-minute waits aren’t unusual at busy times,” County Cllr Whipp said.
“It seems to me that we are doing a disservice to residents and to those wanting to access the police by pointing people in the direction of the 101 system. We ought to be providing an out-of-hours contact service which residents can access if they observe an emergency - say, if a massive hole has appeared.”
County hall’s in-house call centre is available overnight to take emergency calls about social care cases - but Terry White, from the Customer Access Service, said it would not be cost-effective to answer the phones about urgent road repairs.
“We don’t know how many of those calls there are - but it’s an expensive service to staff for the amount of calls we [would expect],” he said.
“It’s a funding issue, but if we wanted to find a way [for people] to be able to contact the county council directly, it would be through the emergency duty team [for social care].”
The meeting also heard that Lancashire County Council makes “a contribution” to the costs incurred by the police of fielding the extra calls outside of office hours - and responding to the incidents which are reported. However, neither the force nor the council was able to confirm the sum provided.
Lancashire Constabulary added that its duty was to “protect the public in an emergency”, but declined to comment on any effect of the additional calls on its overall service.
The county’s police and crime commissioner, Clive Grunshaw, said: "This is another example of the increasing pressures on the service - with Lancashire Constabulary managing not just an increase in crime, with emergency 999 and 101 service receiving more calls than they did in previous years - but also non-crime demand. Around 80% of the calls for service are non-crime related.
"The police are increasingly acting as the emergency service of first resort at a time when we have had to make over Â£84m of savings, with an additional Â£18m of savings required by 2022. This has meant we have lost 800 police officer posts and 350 support staff.
"Officers work around the clock to keep people safe but they are being overstretched. Demand is also becoming more complex, with calls taking around 37% longer, with increases in missing persons cases and vulnerable adult referrals. It is clear that cuts to other services increasingly mean that the police are left picking up the pieces when people's lives fall apart."
"I FELT IT WAS MY DUTY TO REPORT IT"
After encountering an emerging hole at the side of a country lane on the outskirts of Preston last winter, one local resident phoned Lancashire County Council to make the authority aware of the hazard.
But with the time nearing 5pm, the woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, was told that there was nobody available to deal with the problem on Haighton Green Lane and that she was "welcome to ring the police".
"It was getting dark and a cyclist could have driven into the hole or it could have damaged a car," she said.
"I was very surprised to be told to call the police, but I felt it was my duty to report it. After phoning three police stations, I ended up ringing 101.
"What should have been a 10-minute job kept me on the phone for 50 minutes," she added.
"You can report highways problems to the council's website, but I would have been acknowledging it wasn't urgent - and I wanted someone to make a judgement call on whether repair work was needed.
POLICE UNDER PRESSURE
Lancashire Constabulary has previously claimed that they are increasingly having to respond to non-crime incidents which have traditionally been dealt with by other services.
Just last month, the force's chief constable, Andy Rhodes, said that his officers were bearing the brunt of a "mental health crisis" which had hit the county. He claimed that officers were being diverted away from crimes like shoplifting, car theft and public disorder.
“Sadly, there is not a night or day that goes by where we aren’t sent out to someone intent on self-harm, and when this happens it takes precedence over anything else," Ch Con Rhodes said.
“If police officers are sent to incidents involving mental health, we have...very limited options and invariably end up in A&E."
The county's top cop added that his officers could be tied up with a single individual over "a number of days" and statistics showed that over a quarter of police response hours in Lancashire are now accounted for by mental health incidents.
Meanwhile, recent figures revealed that, across England and Wales, 80 percent of household burglary cases were closed during 2017/18 without a suspect being identified. A charge was brought in just 5 percent of cases.
Similarly, with vehicle theft at its highest level for a decade, forces across the country closed more than three quarters of cases before a suspect had been identified, with charges being brought in 4 percent of all recorded incidents.