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Why closing Police Scotland stations is not necessarily a bad thing

Here's my latest Scotsman column, on the above - as published on Monday 25th April 2022.

The recent revelation that well over 100 Scottish police stations have been closed in the last eight years has been greeted with predictable wailing and gnashing of teeth.

At least it’s not just a Scottish cull, half the UK’s police stations have closed in the last decade.

It’s never an easy decision, especially in small rural towns. Like the bank, Post Office and local pub, they symbolise a community’s status as a hub of importance.

Yet almost all are now gone, and for much the same reason: lack of use. We weep crocodile tears at the loss of these totemic buildings but we hardly used them. They died of neglect and our changing lifestyle.

Closing police stations has always been politically difficult. In the old regional structure of forces, local councillors as members of police boards fought tooth and nail to keep their local stations open, right reason or none.

As a result, when it was formed in 2013, Police Scotland inherited a vast and decrepit estate of police buildings, many in the wrong places and most in need of repair.

A good number were not really police stations at all, but village police houses with small annexes attached as offices, a legacy of long-defunct systems of policing.

With the introduction of mobile phones and email came ever-decreasing footfall, and many of these stations got few if any callers.

In Scotland, the problem was exacerbated by the fact that Police Scotland were given a wholly inadequate capital budget to maintain the decrepit estate it inherited.

Public service budgets are strictly divided. Revenue budgets are reserved mainly for salaries, while capital budgets are for buildings, cars, and other hardware.

Transferring funds between budgets is strictly against accounting rules, but in any case there was precious little fat in the revenue budget, even if transfer had been possible.

So since Police Scotland was formed a rolling review of building needs has been ongoing, from necessity, but also to better meet the needs of the future.

Some sacred cows have been slaughtered. The old headquarters of the once-mighty Strathclyde Police in Pitt Street Glasgow has gone, the Fettes HQ of the old Lothian & Borders Police may follow. Rightly so, they were unfit for purpose and to my certain knowledge Fettes has leaked like a sieve for years.

But the wrong buildings in the wrong places is only half the conundrum. Crime patterns and our population are also changing. Towns and cities in the east are growing fast as is the demand for specialist services to deal with the new phenomenon of cybercrime.

The challenge for the police chiefs of today is not to build stations for today but to estimate needs 50 years from now. It’s tough it’s been done before.

Almost 100 years ago, the reforming Chief Constable Percy Sillitoe took over a Glasgow City Police burdened by dozens of crumbling Victorian stations, mostly in the wrong places. He sold them in short order, using the cash to invest in forensic services that laid the foundation for modern criminal investigation.

Today, Chief Constable Livingstone is doing the same thing, to best position our police service to meet future needs. We should not be slaves to nostalgia and confuse buildings with service delivery.

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