Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Looking for trouble

Residents on a west London estate are taking direct action to stop anti-social behaviour. Martin Hilditch spent an evening with the resident patrol to find out why the Home Office is sitting up and paying attention.

It’s a peaceful night on Fulham’s Townmead estate.

Despite the miserable weather a few residents are relaxing on their balconies. England flags flutter gently in the breeze from one set of railings and signs placed at regular intervals remind visitors that the Townmead is a ‘dog-free zone’. A group of pigeons poking round some old mattresses and dumped bedding that is propped against the bin store provide the main sign of life on the west London estate.

There is, however, something brightening up the gloom. Three men in neon yellow, high visibility jackets are taking a slow stroll around Townmead’s courtyard. From a distance they look like they might be neighbourhood wardens or even a community police patrol. As they approach, it quickly becomes obvious that they are altogether different. Get within a few yards and the writing on their jackets tells you simply that they are on ‘patrol’.

Townmead, it transpires, has been the subject of a something of a mild-mannered revolution. While these revolutionaries - who all live on the 600-home estate - are most likely to come armed with an offer of tea and biscuits they are extremely serious about ridding the Townmead of anti-social behaviour. It might be an entirely local approach but it is attracting the attention of the Home Office, which has sent officials on a ‘fact finding’ mission to see how the scheme has worked and whether it could be replicated elsewhere.

While government officials may be impressed, the police and the housing association which manages the estate are not. They say the group are putting themselves at risk. Is this the future of neighbourhood policing or is it simply foolhardy?

The last resort

Property surveyor Ben Perl is one of six people who make up the resident patrol or task force as the six members of the group sometimes refer to themselves.

The shared-owner says residents decided to act after three years of problems on the estate, mainly involving groups of young people causing problems in the stairwells and fire escapes of the flats.

‘Kids were congregating in the stairwells,’ he states. ‘Not only were they smoking and hanging out and drinking, they were also having sex there. It became a place that they could use and abuse as they saw fit without repercussion.’

Some of the problems were caused because central doors designed to stop people who didn’t live on the estate from entering the blocks didn’t work properly for a number of years, he alleges. By the time the doors were repaired the building had been ‘established’ as a hang-out for young people, he added. Neighbourhood wardens employed by the council have helped, he states, but they are not on-call all the time. The response from the police and Shepherd’s Bush Housing Group, which owns and manages the estate, is often too slow and has little impact, he adds.

After much debate the residents decided they would police the estate themselves. ‘We thought “we have got to make them [people committing anti-social behaviour] aware that we know they are there and we are not happy about it”,’ Mr Perl states.

‘We take very much a non-confrontational approach. It is saying “guys, you’re drinking here or you’re smoking here. It is not allowed and the solution is that you are going to have to move”.’

Fellow patrol member Andrew Arnhem, a social worker, says he is frustrated residents felt forced to act at all. ‘I don’t think we should be doing this really,’ he states. ‘The service charge we pay is exhorbitant.’

The group rarely patrols around the estate. Instead they don their jackets and step outside if anyone reports problems to them via phone or text message.

Usually, they say the perpetrators stop what they are doing and disappear as soon as they see them approach.

‘When we have spoken to them they have almost [always] assumed we have some sort of authority, which I suppose we have in some ways,’ Mr Perl adds.

Mixed reaction

The action squad has its fans. All the residents that I spoke to on the estate were supportive of what it was doing. Mr Perl says that the estate is noticeably quieter since the group formed. Perhaps it is this claim that persuaded the Home Office to take a look.

Nonetheless the group has attracted strong criticism from both the police and Shepherd’s Bush Housing Group.Paul Doe, chief executive of SBHG, says that, far from being an example of the ‘big society’, he worries that the residents are placing themselves in danger they are ill-equipped to deal with. ASB should be handled by professionals such as the police or housing officers, he states.

‘Let’s just say there are some young people on the estate that don’t live there and some guy in a jacket approaches them and says “move on”. They might not get a considered response. People could confront them back.’

When told that the Home Office has contacted the group about the scheme Mr Doe adds: ‘I think we have got to be careful about this and where it is going.’

He adds: ‘It sounds a bit like a natural extension of Neighbourhood Watch, which is about keeping an eye on a place. [But] now you are stepping into a very different area.’

He also points out that the association is running activity and training schemes to help young people on the estate learn skills and gain employment - which he argues is more in keeping with the government’s vision for the big society.

Mr Perl admits that the group has also attracted criticism from local police, who are worried about safety and that the high-visibility jackets falsely give the impression that the group is connected to them. The police were not available for comment at the time of going to press.

One resident adds she appreciates what they are doing but ‘I don’t think it is their job. This is a council issue’.

The group remains undeterred. Mr Perl says the jackets state clearly what they are doing and do not give the impression they are connected to the police.

From the even more peaceful confines of his flat Mr Perl adds: ‘Literally this was our last resort.

‘Our flats are everything we have worked for and everything we have strived for and to say we have to accept a lower standard of living than we anticipated is defeatism on so many levels for us.’

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