Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Bringing forces closer to the people is key to better policing, says Reform Scotland

Bringing forces closer to the people is key to better policing, says Reform Scotland

The key to better policing in Scotland is to give every local authority area its own force, a leading think tank proposes today. 

Reform Scotland rejects calls for a single Scottish police force, claiming decentralisation is the route to more effective and accountable policing.

The radical proposal is diametrically opposed to current demands to integrate Scotland’s eight police forces into a single entity.

But Reform Scotland says that when considering law and order the focus should be on delivering better policing and better value for money.

While there have been a number of calls for a centralised force to cover from the Northern Isles to the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway, Reform Scotland believes that, to improve public confidence and local accountability, more local policing is required and therefore Scotland needs forces that correspond to local authority areas.

In a report entitled Striking the Balance, the independent think tank says: ‘The Scottish Government is currently considering merging Scotland’s eight police forces to create a single police force. Reform Scotland recognises that the current structure needs to change, but believes such change needs to move in the opposite direction with more local, accountable policing, rather than a centralised service.

At the same time, the Scottish Crime and Drugs Enforcement Agency [SCDEA] should be strengthened so that it can deal more effectively with national policing priorities, while also playing a co-ordinating and supporting role.’

Researchers for the report studied police forces in other countries such as the Netherlands, Spain, France, Switzerland and Norway.

In response to suggestions that Scotland is too small a country with too few people for more than a single force, the report points out: ‘There are a number of countries round the world which have far more locally accountable policing than Scotland, as well as multi-tier policing. For example, Spain has 1,800 municipal police forces and Belgium has 196 local forces.’

Scotland’s eight police forces vary greatly in terms of size, geography and police numbers. There are also considerable differences in crime and detection rates as well as the type of criminal activity the eight forces faced. For example, while Fife Constabulary had the second lowest rate for non-sexual crimes of violence in 2009/10, it had the highest rate for crimes of indecency, and Grampian Police had the third highest rate for crimes of dishonesty, but the lowest rate for fire-raising and vandalism.

Reform Scotland points out that the different crime problems faced in different areas highlight the need for locally accountable police forces that have the autonomy to address these issues in the most appropriate way for the communities they serve, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach directed from the Central Belt.

The think tank says: ‘While recorded crime in Scotland is at a 32-year low, there is a sizeable minority of the public which does not have full confidence in the policing on offer in their local communities.’

Reform Scotland’s key recommendation is that boundaries are redrawn so that police force areas match those of local authorities.

The report suggests: ‘Already in Scotland there are two areas where this is the case – in Fife and Dumfries & Galloway. It would, therefore, be easy to pilot these policies in one or both of these areas.’

It adds: ‘The key feature is that this recommendation would provide local accountability. This structure would not politicise the police any more than a single police force – rather than one chief constable being accountable to the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, we would have 32 chief constables accountable to local councillors.

‘As well as addressing the current accountability gap and ensuring that the service was more local, this model provides the opportunity for more effective policing on a local level as it is also more transparent for councils to choose to spend more, or less, on policing as their area requires, as well setting new by-laws for their police forces to enforce.
‘Linking up local authorities and policing would also lead to a clearer sense of who was in charge of policing; while the local chief constable would have operational responsibility, a local politician would have political responsibility, just as is the case for education, housing and a number of other local services. For example, currently there is no identifiable person in charge of policing in Glasgow; rather there is Chief Constable Stephen House who is responsible for the whole of Strathclyde and three chief superintendents who cover different parts of Glasgow. Under Reform Scotland’s model there would be no doubt who was in charge.’

The success of New York City’s policing strategy also depended on responsibilities being devolved down to precincts, which is why Reform Scotland argues that powers should be devolved down through Scotland’s divisions, explained Alison Payne, one of the report authors. The success of such localised policing in New York City also hinged on greater powers being devolved down to precinct commanders, who were in turn answerable for the crime records in their areas.

She said: ‘Just as there are different crime problems facing the different police forces in Scotland, there are different crime problems facing different areas within forces. As a result, it is important that enough freedom is given to area commanders to try out different policing methods. This also enables innovative and new policing practices to be tried out. As with all public services, increasing the diversity of provision can raise standards for all. Imposing a one-size-fits-all structure from the centre will stifle that innovation.’

Reform Scotland is not convinced by claims that a single force would either save money or lead to more effective policing in Scotland. The current problem within policing is not just a lack of accountability, but more specifically a lack of local accountability. This can be resolved by making Chief Constables accountable to local communities via locally-elected councils.

Alison said: ‘Instead of one police chief accountable to central government, we want police chiefs accountable to local communities, while strengthening the role of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency will mean that there is greater capacity for providing co-ordinating and supporting roles from the centre.’

The report argues that the existing divisional structure within the current forces would mean that it would be fairly straightforward to establish the 32 forces. (Illustrated in the report)

Alison added: ‘We believe that the Scottish Government is moving in the wrong direction with its plans to centralise policing. While we agree with the need for greater centralisation and collaboration on specialist policing, we would argue that this should be done alongside greater devolution of local policing, creating proper national and local police bodies which could address both national and local problems.’
The report concludes: ‘Replacing the current system with the one outlined by this report will improve accountability and help re-establish a greater pride and confidence in both local and national policing in Scotland.’


  1. Reform Scotland is an independent, non-party think tank that aims to set out a better way to deliver increased economic prosperity and more effective public services based on the traditional Scottish principles of limited government, diversity and personal responsibility. Further information is available at
  2. Reform Scotland’s report “On The Pill: Coronavirus and Contraception”, can be read here.
  3. All four opposition parties tweeted their support for our proposal: 
    • Miles Briggs MSP, Conservative:  “This suggestion put forward by @reformscotland calling on @scotgov to include access to the birth control pill in the recently extended Minor Ailment Service seems sensible and will help take pressure off GP surgeries”
    • Monica Lennon MSP, Labour: “A welcome briefing on coronavirus and contraception from @reformscotland calling on @scotgov to include access to the birth control pill in the recently extended Minor Ailment Service.  Will @scotgov support this @JoeFitzSNP @jeaneF1MSP”
    • Alison Johnstone MSP, Greens: “I very much support @reformscotland call for free access to contraceptive pill during COVID-19 crisis.  Enabling prescription direct from pharmacists at this time ensures that cost isn’t a barrier for any woman.  Our local pharmacists are well placed  to offer guidance and advice”
    • Alex Cole Hamilton MSP, Liberal Democrat: “This is a really important suggestion (finger down emoji)”
  4. Media: Message Matters (Andy Maciver, [email protected], 07855 261 244)


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