Labour councillors like me know from talking with and listening to working people and their families on the doorstep that the vast majority care deeply about where they live and that issues like litter, fly-tipping, low level ASB and dog mess are top of the list of their concerns.
It’s an issue that affects virtually every resident across our city. And what’s more it’s backed by numerous surveys and Focus Groups all telling us that ‘parochial issues’ – the physical condition of streets, pavements, the state of local parks, community safety – figure more highly than some national politicians imagine.
So, it’s time to get real. Crime in Newcastle is down by about 15% since 2010 according to the City’s ‘Safe Newcastle Plan’. In Cowgate, one of the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the UK crime has fallen by a massive 55%, thanks to work by Northumbria Police’s Neighbourhood Team, working alongside other partners such as the City Council, YHN and the public.
Despite this improvement, anti-social behaviour and low level criminality still plagues some pockets of our communities, especially in the more deprived areas of the west and east ends of the city. Too often the victims of this intimidating behaviour are the poor, the white working-class, lone-parents, some BAME groups and adults with physical and learning disabilities. The classic example was the brutal murder of Lee Irving, 24, in summer 2015, a vulnerable man with learning difficulties. The perpetrators are now in permanent custody serving a 23 year old jail sentence.
It’s clearly a class, disability, race and gender related issue which has little impact on the lives of those who live in middle-class, comfortable neighbourhoods, outside the city, such as Darras Hall, Ponteland, some of whom are magistrates or JPs, who too often issue ‘soft sentences’, to the perpetrators of such behaviour.
Once again let’s not forget the victims here, especially old folk or disabled people who constantly have eggs pelted at their windows on a weekly basis or are subjected to vile verbal abuse. We know from survey evidence and group interviews that the ‘law-abiding’ majority of residents want the Council, police, Probation Service and the Courts to get tough on the hard-core of people who carry behaving badly and send out a clear message that hate crime, spitting, dropping rubbish and fag ends, unkempt front gardens, dog dirt, and unsupervised dangerous dogs who terrorise too many disadvantaged communities, is unacceptable.
That’s why Northumbria’s Police and Crime Commissioner Dame Vera Bird has pledged to:
- Protect and support vulnerable people such as those with disabilities;
- Prevent and reduce crime and ASB;
- Protect young people;
- Reduce violence against women and girls;
- Reduce adult offending and reoffending;
- Reduce the harm and impact of substance misuse.
In practical terms this means retaining Neighbourhood Police Teams, modernised CCVT cameras, which can capture in great detail offences being carried out, on-the-spot £75 fines for dog fouling and regular visits by Your Homes Newcastle (YHN) to inspect ill-maintained tenants’ gardens. And the Council working with the police have increased prosecutions of those who park irresponsibly on pavements – a problem that isn’t always only dangerous for pedestrians, but costs the Council £250,000 a year to replace broken pavement stones.
Tough action has been taken against waste crime and fly-tipping. From 2013 to present Newcastle Council has taken 778 prosecutions and issued 972 Fixed Penalty Notices. These actions have culminated in 2,760 hours of community payback, 71 months of prison sentences and over a quarter of a million pounds in fines. Our Labour run council carried out the second highest number of prosecutions for fly-tipping in Britain.
Furthermore a large number of Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPO) have been issued to clamp down on a range of ASBs that directly impact on citizens’ quality of lives as well action on professionalised begging in the city centre.
Too often that’s something that people forget – littering, dog mess and bad parking eventually costs city council taxpayers money because the local authority has to clear it up.
In the past we haven’t been tough enough – we’ve kidded ourselves it’s inevitable that this type of behaviour goes on some of our communities by members of what some social scientists refer to as a ‘’Feral Under-Class’. That’s a notion we need to challenge – wherever it takes place. We must stop the excuses and start to find answers.
The Council aims to work with, support and celebrate citizens who make a positive and worthwhile contribution to their neighbourhood. It can’t be left just to the police who have seen a 20% cut to their budgets.
Community litter Picks have now become a central feature in many Wards across the city. Community groups such as ‘Greening Wingrove’ have been established to look after public spaces. Local businesses such as Bradley Hall estate agents has taken ownership of keeping the Kenton Park Shopping centre free from debris and dumped rubbish. Social Enterprise companies such as ‘Skills-Mill’, involving ex-offenders and NEETS have been put to work on environmental projects such as cleaning out the three mile long burn next to the city’s famous green open space Town Moor . The Council’s ‘Let’s Talk Process’ found that over 80% of the city’s residents backed the ‘get tough’ approach and welcomed ideas on how we can make the quality of life better for the law-abiding majority.
For example in 2013, a ‘U-Decide’ project (directly involving the community, Newcastle College, YHN and the Council) tackled the scourge of binge drinking amongst youngsters living in Elswick and Benwell and was warmly welcomed by local residents and voluntary groups.
Clearly, the causes of some of this behaviour are complex and multi-faceted, rooted in everything from deprivation, structural inequality, casual opportunism to ‘’dysfunctional families’’.
The longer-term solutions demand far more investment from central government to sort out, (especially in neighbourhood policing) but by working together at a local level, we can make a difference to some of our citizens’ basic concerns now. For instance, by getting tougher, and sending out a clear message that bad behaviour and incivility won’t be tolerated. And finally, putting the victim first when it comes to our flawed criminal justice system. Labour in 1996 pledged to be the party of law and order. In 2017 it must remain so.