Alison Hernandez is Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon, Cornwall, and the Isles of Scilly
Alex: Hi Alison, can you tell me a bit about yourself?
Alison: Well, I’m originally from Hele, in Torquay. The area has a lower life expectancy than most, and my family seem to follow that rule, as both grandparents died before they were 65, and my dad died at 59.
My grandad and dad were originally both bus drivers, and my mum a Home Care Assistant. I was the first in my family to go to University, and was one of the few who couldn’t wait to get back home afterwards.
I love the openness of the sea, and can feel claustrophobic when spending long periods inland. I’ve worked in public service most of my life, tackling poverty and crime in Bristol, Plymouth, and Torbay.
I ran my own business consultancy with a retired police officer for 5 years, and worked across the UK, Singapore, and Australia – but Torquay is, and always will be, my home. I have a 13-year-old daughter, and my mum and brother live 5 minutes from me.
I’m a sucker for red wine and a boxset, and my music taste is affected by my mood.
Alex: There’s no doubt that we’re currently experiencing difficult economic circumstances. From speaking to local business owners, what would you say are the biggest challenges they’re currently faced with?
Alison: Getting people back out enjoying themselves safely is the biggest challenge.
As a largely tourism and hospitality focused area, we need people’s confidence to be successful. I’ve been working flat-out since COVID-19 started, and all I’ve done is go to work, buy food for my mum and my family, and stay home.
My new routine is going to be difficult to break.
I’ve met older people who are shielded, and they’re still terrified to leave the house, or do much at all.
Wearing masks (although most are adhering to it), is not a way of life we want forever. It’s why I’ve introduced street marshals for this summer in twenty of our beauty spots and beaches to help offer people that reassurance, and to minimise antisocial behaviour that could put off lawabiding families from coming here.
I think businesses who were able to take advantage of the government furlough scheme have been given a lifeline to survive.
Many will need to rethink the need for office space, consider greater flexible working practices, and reduce travel costs by making online meetings the norm.
There’s as much opportunity as there is threat with this crisis.
Alex: What do you think individuals, business owners, and those in positions of power, can do to help local businesses through this difficult time?
Alison: First off, our police force has played an incredible role to help protect all of us.
Being proactive from the beginning of lockdown, Devon and Cornwall Police are in the top 3 police services to have issued the most fixed penalty notices.
By making sure our community understood the rules, and abided by them, I believe they played a major part in keeping the virus out of our area.
On behalf of our community, I scrutinised the use of police powers, and was reassured they were used legitimately and proportionally.
Keeping public safety as a priority is what we must all do. I’ve produced posters for shopkeepers about mask wearing, and I am helping people to understand who is exempt – and of the need to not judge others who aren’t wearing one. And again, with the street marshal scheme, we’re supporting businesses by managing the public space from St Ives to Torquay.
Promoting that our area is safe, and that we’re all looking out for one another, is a role my office has played too.
We are the lowest crime area in the country, and should shout about it!
Alex: A July 2020 poll by the consultancy company BritainThinks found that only 12% of people want life to return to normal ‘exactly as it was before’ once the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
Do you think life should return to exactly how it was before? If not, how would you like our routines to be different?
Alison: I believe working parents have had the hardest time. I have a daughter who’s been partially neglected during the COVID-19 pandemic due to me working long hours, as I’m sure many supermarket workers, police officers, prison officers, and NHS workers will understand.
I definitely want schools re-opened. Children need to socialise with their friends and need structure in their day.
But I’m open to her lessons taking place in museums, theatres, and new locations to help with social distancing, and to create a more interesting learning environment – which, in turn, may help these places to survive too.
The introduction of so many online meetings has not been a pleasure.
It feels like you’re co-ordinating work in a virtual world. It may be efficient, but it’s certainly not a grounding experience, like meeting people face to face is.
As a politician, it’s important you don’t lose touch with the community, and I’ve missed all our community events and ‘Meet My PCC’ sessions during the summer. Online meetings are a poor substitute, so I think a balance of real and virtual meetings needs to happen going forward.
I’m delighted we’ve reduced our carbon emissions by travelling less, but it hasn’t stopped people from losing their lives on our roads, which I am tackling with partners across the peninsula. We believe in ‘Vision Zero’, which is where no-one is killed and noone is seriously injured on our roads by 2040.
Imagine living through lockdown with life-changing injuries, or while dealing with the loss of a loved one. It’s unbearable to know some people have had to do so.
Alex: Two of the hardest hit industries as a result of the pandemic are hospitality and tourism, both of which the Torbay area relies heavily on.
What do you think can be done to diversify our local economy, so it’s better able to withstand such shocks in future?
Alison: As with all areas, we need encourage an entrepreneurial spirit; people pushing boundaries to create products and services of value.
Schools are focused on helping our children get jobs, not create their own businesses.
So it starts at primary school.
My daughter has had many a task to make and sell things for a school fete, without being taught that the costs matter. But many businesses in Torbay are lifestyle choices, not just about profits – and who doesn’t want a good work/life balance?
Helping people to be prepared for a crisis is also something we could do in terms of not overstretching ourselves with loans and large mortgages that can be hard to sustain if our income drops.
Learn to love the simple things in life, and enjoy our free and beautiful surroundings to live more cheaply and sustainably.
Alex: In recent years, lots of companies have either relocated to the Exeter region, or opened new divisions there; what do you think we could do in Torbay to entice more companies to relocate here as well?
Alison: We need to remind people that the South Devon Link Road was a good investment that helps speed up the travel to Torbay.
And we need Edginswell Station built to more easily join a mainline station which connects to the big cities.
But we also need to get fast broadband sorted once and for all, and inbuilt into new developments – not retrospectively fitted – so that people and businesses can work from Torbay, either at home or by relocating here.
Finally, the one thing that separates us from Exeter is their cultural offer. I remember working for Torbay Council when we were trying to entice the Met Office to come here instead of Exeter.
While we had better schools, Exeter had to promise to improve theirs. It was their wider cultural offering which includes a University, and all it brings to a place in terms of a diverse community offering interesting places to eat, drink, educate and be entertained, which proved decisive.
The sooner South Devon College achieves their University status, the better for all of us.
Alex: The regional economy of the South West is not as strong as some other parts of the country, what do you think we can learn from these areas in terms of growing our economy?
Alison: We need a strong voice to encourage investment from the government and from businesses.
I’ve been working with partners to support the Great South West as a brand, and an area to shout about, and invest in.
The Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine is known by all, even if we don’t know exactly what it is.
It gets quoted by Ministers and is a recognised brand.
These are areas with elected Mayors, and although I believe we failed to exploit the role of Mayor for Torbay to our benefit, we could take advantage if our Mayor represented a larger area with bigger clout.
Also, our overall political and administrative landscape in the South West is a bit messy, which doesn’t help. Cornwall is the only area which is coterminous with their fire service.
Alongside the 18 MPs who are in my constituency, I’ve worked hard to secure Devon and Cornwall a voice nationally. I believe sorting out some of the mess of bureaucracy will help, and I look forward to reading the White Paper in the autumn that will be looking at this. We have lots of strong, individual identities, but we need to speak with one voice, and I’ll keep doing it while I’m here.
Alex: Thanks Alison, is there anything else you’d like to say?
Alison: The Police and Crime Commissioner elections were postponed until May 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so I have been given an extra year – but I’m not complacent, and am still delivering on what matters to people.
Recruiting police officers – there’ll be 317 extra police officers by the end of this year. Preventing crime – we have become the lowest crime rate area in the country, which is largely thanks to our law-abiding community, and to the lack of tolerance of crime.
Also, I have not taken lightly the investment our community has made through their council tax to ensure we are a safe place to live, work, and visit.