Feature: Narrowing the crime perception gap

New Labour's police funding brought about real results in cutting crime, but public perceptions didn't improve. In a time of spending cuts and upheaval, it's going to be very difficult for the coalition to do better.

By Alex Stevenson

It's not much to ask. The public tell politicians that they're worried about crime in their neighbourhood. The politicians put pressure on the police to do something about it. Crime levels fall. The politicians, having done their job, get re-elected. Simple, really.

Only, as figures released last week from the Office for National Statistics show, it isn't quite like that. Between 2008/09 and 2009/10, the British Crime Survey recorded a drop in the estimated number of crimes from 10.4 million to 9.5 million. An impressive reduction, by any standards.

How frustrating, then, that during the same period two-thirds of people in England and Wales thought crime had risen at the national level. The New Labour government, in power at the time, didn't get the public sympathy – and therefore votes – that it deserved from the money spent.

Polling data over the years suggests the Labour government was never very good at reaping the benefits of its law and order agenda. Tony Blair's 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' translated to extra money: policing budgets rose in real-terms between 1995/96 and 2009/10 by an eye-watering 44%, from £8.8 billion to £12.6 billion. But the public didn't bite.

"Between roughly 2003 and 2008 actual crime was falling but it was increasing as an issue of importance to the public – there was a perception gap," says Helen Cleary, head of political research at pollster Ipsos Mori. Its figures back up the ONS' stats. "There is still a gap today albeit a smaller one," Cleary adds, "with one in five people worried about crime but recorded crime far lower than it has been in recent years".

Her comments seem to back up the argument of David Hanson, the policing minister for the last of New Labour's 13 years in power, who blames the media's coverage for the problem.

"What lies behind those initial figures is more people were being caught, more people were getting longer sentences and confidence was rising," he says. "But still it can be shattered by one picture of an elderly vulnerable person beaten up in their home on the front page of a national newspaper."

People's perception of crime, Hanson claims, comes through what they see on the television, read in the newspapers and hear from their neighbours. I admit that my thinking on the issue is influenced by my recently having watched The Wire, a piercingly accurate depiction of the way politics and the media impact on everyday policing in Baltimore.

"This actually happens," Hanson insists. "People look at The Bill or the crimes in EastEnders and will think 'this is happening all the time'." All it takes is for a "particularly horrendous" murder, rape or robbery to set back the public's fragile opinion.

Blair Gibbs, head of crime at centre-right thinktank Policy Exchange, disagrees. "We need to avoid the patrician attitude that public concern about crime is entirely manufactured by the leader writers of the Daily Express and that our tabloid media, whose power and influence is waning as is their circulation, is clearly not as influential as some liberal criminologists would imply," he says.

Gibbs argues the public are "acutely sensitive" to changes in crime and disorder at the local level. It's the same as house prices: the national media's interest in Britain's average price is meaningless to those who are selling a house on a street which is more or less attractive for local reasons. "It's local crime stats that really inform people's sense of safety."

The coalition has embraced a new measure designed to address the problem: crime mapping. Maps have been published on a council ward by council ward basis which show all reported crimes. Politicians faced with the issue on the doorstep used to be left retreating to soundbites; now they can be directed to look at the raw data for themselves. The perception gap narrows as a result.

"I think the net impact of crime mapping will be to restore some confidence, if only because it can demystify the local reality from the national coverage of high profile crimes," Gibbs adds.

"There will probably be many more people looking at their local crime map who are reassured by the apparently small number of crimes as there will be people who look at their local area and are shocked by the volume."

It's too soon to tell what impact crime maps will have, but there are two reasons for thinking that they may not be as great as politicians hope.

Firstly, they affect local perceptions of crime, not national ones. Although 66% thought crime had risen nationally, according to the latest ONS figures, just 31% thought the same of crime at the local level. It's the national picture which needs addressing – and crime maps don't directly speak to that.

Secondly, there's always a chance that crime levels will not continue to fall. Hanson, watching the coalition's progress, is sceptical that funding cuts will not lead to a similar slow-off in progress against crime.

"The difficulty they're going to face is a very severe economic challenge at a time when they're reducing policing funding by around 20% over four years," he points out.

"[Public] confidence is about visibility, understanding and being in touch with local issues, and the trend in falling crime. I'm not sure whether the trend in falling crime will continue."

The coalition has one more card up its sleeve: elected police commissioners. These are going to replace elected police authorities with a single person who has the power to hire or fire chief constables. He or she will also be able to control the police force's budget, direct its strategy and secure its maintenance.

Critics say placing so much power in the hands of one individual risks the politicisation of the police. Supporters, including Gibbs of Policy Exchange, disagree. "Local residents will finally feel that somebody is answerable for the performance of the police, and the buck stops with somebody," he says. "In the longer term, that will be good for public confidence."

That might help with the local problem, but not the national-level picture. This isn't exclusive to crime: "people have different perceptions about 'their local area' vs 'Britain as a whole'" on a whole variety of issues, Cleary of Ipsos Mori says.

"This perception gap is widespread across social issues, particularly where people do not have direct experiences to draw on," she explains.

"For example, we tend to find that the public overestimates the number of immigrants to Britain, the number of teenage pregnancies, and so on."

As on so many other issues, persuading voters the situation is actually improving is much harder than it sounds. Elected police commissioners might help the crime perception problem at the local level. Nationally, it's unlikely to be the panacea politicians continue to find so elusive.