Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

Hardly a day passes without reports of young people being stabbed or shot as drug gangs battle for territory in our cities.

The proliferation of violent, armed youth, and young adult, gangs is a relatively recent phenomenon, but a worrying one. Sadly, as the big city drug markets are saturated, dealers are moving into the regions, adapting tactics to attract less attention in smaller urban areas, where most authorities have been surprised by the level of activity.

So, ‘Preventing the Violent & Sexual Victimisation of Vulnerable Gang-involved and Gang-affected Children & Young People in Ipswich’, by academics at the University of Suffolk, is essential reading for anyone with responsibility for safeguarding and crime reduction.

Commissioned by Suffolk County Council, in response to increasing concern amongst communities and agencies, it offers fresh insight into the rise of this criminal underworld, especially the hopelessness, beneath the bravado, of those youngsters who become embroiled in it.

Dr Paul Andell, senior lecturer in Criminology, together with Visiting Professor of Criminology, Professor John Pitts, noted that: “it is important to acknowledge that the issues facing Ipswich are not an isolated occurrence, with estimates of up to 70 per cent of the country facing similar problems relating to gangs. Young people are particularly vulnerable to the harms generated from these illicit enterprises and a sensitive but robust response is required.”

The problem has escalated over the last decade, with organised crime groups using violence, threats, and coercion to exert control over youngsters – usually known to care services – to distribute Class A drugs, whilst also storing weapons, and arming runners with knives.

Suffolk towns have gradually become victims of the trend, and in 2014 the Government’s Ending Gangs & Youth Violence team conducted a peer review of strategies to control and prevent activities in the county. Crucially, it reported that various key organisations disagreed about whether problems actually resulted from gang culture. This meant the response was largely dysfunctional, with duplication of effort and silo working.

Consequently, whilst the Police had adopted a high level Gold plan, “it lacked clarity and mechanisms to effectively identify, address and communicate a way of dealing with gang offending”.  The police subsequently became part of a pilot to provide a single source of intelligence in the Eastern Region, to address risks from exploitation, firearms, and levels of violence with a joined-up response.

Despite a crackdown on incursions from London, (as well as – to a lesser extent – Birmingham and Liverpool) leading to 2,500 arrests and convictions in Ipswich in the last couple of years, there is continuing pressure from criminals to expand the drugs market, so authorities have to adopt a more focused multi-agency operational approach.

The new report’s recommendations include:

  • Clear acknowledgement of a problem;
  • Proactive leadership and Effective Strategic Governance;
  • Clear targets for intervention (and outcomes);
  • Community engagement, and
  • Resources.

A full action plan, developed with communities and other stakeholders, will be published by the end of the year and, although the focus is on Ipswich, the findings will inform how to deal with similar issues elsewhere in the county.

The three main headings will enable work to progress to the next level:

  • Reducing vulnerability: supporting families, children and young people to be resilient and not vulnerable to those wishing to exploit them;
  • Creating an environment which puts communities in control;
  • Enforcement.

Cllr Gordon Jones, Suffolk County Council’s Cabinet Member for Education and Skills commented, “we already know a lot about how to help vulnerable young people, and have systems in place. We must show them the dangers and help them understand that they are being exploited by adults to make profits – and challenge the culture which glamorises this way of life.” He should also challenge the lack of aspiration amongst these youngsters, who inevitably perform poorly at, or skip, school without understanding the importance of education.

Meanwhile, Tim Passmore, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Suffolk, acknowledges the report “as a very serious call to arms, to work together across all agencies, communities, businesses and the voluntary sector to support our young people. No one agency can resolve these problems on their own, we need to pool resources and focus our attention to make a real impact.” One of his biggest concerns must surely be the BBC’s report that 46 youngsters recently apprehended were already known to social services in London.

Cllr Alasdair Ross, Ipswich Borough Council’s portfolio holder for Public Protection also acknowledges the need for action, saying “we are ready and willing to put in the extra resources required for us to do our part, with a short term plan to tackle gang violence and a longer term plan to tackle the scourge of illegal drugs”.

In recent months, the local media has reported a number of incidents, including sexual assaults, which are affecting the wider community’s perception of their own safety, especially in the town centre as the evenings close in. Dog walkers, too, are cautious about using a specific park.

It is 11 years since Ipswich was in lockdown between October and December as five young women were murdered. For years, the authorities had known about the street prostitution which prompted the murders; it now appears that the same is true of the scale of drug trafficking.

Although the serial killer was caught quite quickly, it took a long time for the local economy to recover, leaving shops, restaurants, pubs, cinemas and theatres empty. So it is essential that action is not only taken to improve security now, but is seen to be taken.

Councils need to understand that, if people don’t feel safe, businesses will not invest in the town. They could start with a Keep Safe information campaign, offering free personal alarms, and reviewing policies to turn off street lights at midnight. Inevitably, there will be demands for more officers on the streets, as happened in 2006, and in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks.