Argus title : Stop talking, start acting
We have read much of recent days about the plight of Brighton’s London Road – beset by shop closures and besieged by alcoholics and heroin addicts, whose behaviour is all too often intimidatory and abusive.
Small traders in the London Road are in the process of setting up a London Road Traders’ Association to demand action from police and council leaders. A meeting between council officers, police and traders is being arranged.
The response by officials may seem positive and timely – until one remembers that the council and police have known about problems in the London Road area for years. Local traders and residents have been voluble on the subject and this newspaper has called for action, not least in this column. Yet as the situation has worsened, there has been little effective action.
David Lepper, MP for Brighton Pavilion, says he has been asking the authorities for months to take action. He said: “I have been lobbying the police and council throughout this year because of the number of calls I have had from residents complaining about London Road. I keep being told the community safety team on the council knows about the problems and is working with the police.”
His frustration is understandable, for police and council representatives seem remarkably complacent. Chief Inspector Laurence Taylor of Sussex Police recently commented: “There are certainly issues in the area and that is why we put our resources down there. But we need to know who, where and when so we can target our resources effectively. We set regular patrols and covert work in the area but it is difficult to know what specific problems the traders are talking about because they haven’t spoken to me.”
Chief Inspector Taylor, unlike the rest of us, has access to up to date and detailed crime statistics. Does he seriously expect us to believe that he doesn’t know that, for example, Forfars bakery has been broken into several times? Or that there has been armed robbery in the locality?
Are the police really unaware that there is open drug dealing by vendors on foot and bicycle, all around the London Road from Francis Street to Gloucester place – to the extent that many old people avoid shopping after midday? Or that several pubs have so far annexed the public pavement that at times local residents can be seen to cross the road rather than pass by them.
Where issues of public order and drug dealing are concerned, it is surely not the job of local residents and traders to find out “who, where and when”, but the business of the police. The police and community safety team should not have needed to be prompted by traders, but should have made inquiries months ago.
It is simply unacceptable for the council’s spokesperson to loftily inform the Argus that: “The partnership work of the city council, the police, the health sector and others has been nationally commended in its success in tackling drug and alcohol-related crime and disorder.” Adding graciously “However, we realise there is still much to do and we are grateful for any information people can give us on substance misuse, crime and antisocial behaviour in the city.”
This is complacent and patronising nonsense. The truth is that some years ago a powerful coalition of traders and residents in St James’ Street and Kemp Town rightly demanded that something be done about the public drunkenness and drug usage which used to be associated with their locality. The police and Council subsequently agreed a series of actions which simply displaced the problem to the London Road.
This was entirely predictable and so begs the question why it was done. My cynical soul suggests it was because St James Street and Kemp Town are: visible to tourists; central to Gay Pride festivities; the home of many sophisticated restaurants and nightclubs; and accessed by many people on high income. London Road on the other hand has historically been the shopping area of Brighton people who live on low incomes.
The brutal truth is that the council’s much vaunted commitment to “diversity” has not extended readily to the unglamorous and unfashionable victims of prejudice and disadvantage such as the elderly, lone parents, the poor and the sick. Few tourists visit the London Road and there are no sophisticated clubs or restaurants – just struggling family businesses and a committed community with its back against the wall.
Though some individual politicians have been deeply committed to the locality, none of the political parties have really listened to residents and small traders. They are so sure that they know what is best for the area that they fail to properly consult, attending to vocal lobbies and powerful interests, failing to seek out those who are voiceless.
The state of the nearby Level provides a stark example. Just recently there have been press releases and letters from both Green and Labour politicians anxious to associate themselves with a campaign to build a new skatepark at the Level. This is despite the fact that the existing graffiti-strewn skate park – largely used by young adult males – has caused major difficulties for the adjacent children’s play area and paddling pool. It also ignores the fact that there is already a new state of the art skate-park on the sea front.
Just over 3 years ago, I wrote in this column about the great damage that had been caused by building a skateboard park inside the Level’s designated children’s play area. I commented then: “The development would have made perfect sense if it had been earmarked for the use of younger children wishing to learn to skateboard or cycle. However, no age restrictions were put in place. This is despite the fact that a little-known byelaw exists banning people over 15 from the children’s play area on the Level – unless they accompany a child.
“As a consequence, the skateboard area has become the exclusive domain of older boys and significant numbers of young men, some in their early twenties. It has become a ‘no go’ area for females and young children, and to a great extent has driven away elderly people who traditionally sat in the adjacent Rose Walk.”
I described some of the destructive behaviour which I had witnessed, from graffiti to drunkenness, bullying and sexual harassment, commenting that councillors and officials preferred to “accommodate the needs of older and adult skateboarders before those of families with young children who have little option but to use their local park.”
I added, presciently it seems: “In this atmosphere of disorder it is hardly surprising that abusive behaviour on the Level has become more widespread. Or that it is now being used by addicts and alcoholics displaced by the public drinking bans in adjacent areas and attracted by the many drugs outlets in the London Road area.”
Consultation with young and vocal adult skateboarders and a few “skateboard mums” is no substitute for genuine consultation with young people – or indeed women and parents.
The Myplace programme, funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), will be making grants to support projects across England that are working to create safe places for young people to go, where they can get involved in a wide range of activities and get information and advice.
The funding is intended to help young people, particularly those in deprived areas, take part in positive activities that will help them develop new skills and raise their aspirations. I am at a loss to understand how an expanded skatepark will achieve this.
The council could use the funding for many purposes useful to young people – not least improved facilities for under-resourced victims of bullying and teenage girls and young women who badly need safe services and activities.
I hope that as it contemplates change in the London Road area and funding bids designed to support this, that councillors will undertake genuine consultation with a range of different interest groups.
I hope too that politicians from all party backgrounds will begin to question the siren voices of council officers and some councilors, who may themselves have become part of the problem.