Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
As the number of knife-related deaths in London and other cities continue to escalate, it is important to recognise that the problem is spreading via ‘County Lines’ into smaller towns and rural areas, right across the country.
A couple of days ago, a leaflet dropped through my letterbox in Ipswich. Headed ‘Park News’; it promotes a couple of Labour’s ward councillors who are facing next May’s local elections.
It was also a belated response by the Labour-run council to residents’ concerns about safety in a local park. This park used to be popular with dog walkers, parents using the play area, and those – like me – using it as an enjoyable walking route to access the town centre and waterfront area.
Close to both the university and college, with hundreds of students coming and going in groups or alone, in the last couple of years the park has become unsafe. I quote from the Labour leaflet, “a growing number of anti-social and criminal incidents, including fly-tipping, drugs, robbery and vandalism”. Yes, we knew that. Even my friends with big dogs – one with a St. Bernard – have refused to use the park for at least a year, as have I.
Anyway, the local councillors, “have met up with officers in the park to make the case for improvements…. Staff and Police have undertaken a sweep of the park to ensure drug related items, and weapons, were found and removed.” Just imagine what damage could have been done to a child, or pet.
They announced plans to remove lower branches of trees to enable a better line of sight across the park, and to cut back overgrown shrubs; the gate to the play area “will be repaired so that it springs shut and the bolt works”.
Although locked at night, criminals still manage to gain access, so it is welcome that park staff increase their daily checks to ensure everyone’s safety, making their regular patrols more visible. With a bus stop located outside the main entrance, waiting passengers can feel vulnerable to potential abuse, especially in the dark, whilst those living nearby are conscious of the growth in potentially dangerous litter in shrubs alongside the pavement, as well as open land to the rear of properties, which are a haven for wildlife, including hedgehogs.
With about 1,800 acres of parks, open space, and allotments, Ipswich suffers similar abuse right across the town, despite efforts by Friends groups, who help to maintain and manage some parks and are powerful advocates for their neighbourhoods. 13 or more drug gangs are estimated to be operating in the town; with growing pressures on police, so the council’s new measures are welcome, if somewhat overdue.
Sadly, there seems to be a disconnect between what is happening on the ground and other decisions made by the County and Borough councils; reducing youth services and closing community centres means troubled young people take to the streets, becoming unwilling victims of the drug culture as they are absorbed into gangs. When they realise what is happening to them, there is no escape route.
Since a teenager was knifed to death in the town a few months ago, the public sector has woken up to the dangers stalking the streets (and open spaces), leaving some no-go areas, with those able to move house abandoning certain locations.
It was evident from the angry public meetings convened in the wake of the tragedy that local residents knew what was going on, but no-one was willing to listen. Borough and County councillors were surprised at residents’ fury that their warnings about the impact of cuts on local youth, and arguments for support were ignored, when volunteers and charities willingly offered help.
Subsequently, the Conservative-run County Council reversed its decision to close the run-down community centre, investing in improvements, whilst the Borough offered free access to its sports centres during the summer holidays. This made a difference, but neither council can think “job done” to appease local residents and the media. They have to make a long-term commitment to work with the community and the Police – to be visible and actually listen.
Councillors may profess to be ‘engaged’ with their constituents, but few actually live in their divisions, so if they are genuinely committed to the people who elect them, they should be fully involved, visiting schools and allotments, talking to people in their shopping centres, monitoring the environment (rubbish is a key issue). They should be organising and attending events, enabling socialising to prevent loneliness, and communicating in person, not just via leaflets and occasional door knocking in the run up to elections.
Being a councillor takes time, and it is not just about politics or town planning; it is about caring. Discovering what goes on behind closed doors can be a shock; few of us understand what deprivation actually means because it manifests itself in so many different ways, not that abuse is confined to specific ‘classes’ of society.
Recruiting people to stand as councillors is no easy task, especially amongst younger generations, who have so many work and family commitments, but helping others desperate to improve their lives and uncertain what to do, is a reward in itself. However, it means actually forgetting your own preconceptions by listening to people, letting them tell you the truth – and taking appropriate action to resolve issues, before disaster strikes, whether that means another teenager being struck down, or a repeat of Grenfell – which could have been averted if lessons had been learnt from previous incidents, both in the UK and overseas.