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On a wet and miserable Thursday night with an England game on the telly, around sixty townspeople turned up for a Public Meeting organised by the Police to launch a new Neighbourhood Management Scheme. And full marks to PC Simon Towers who had somehow persuaded fifteen or so young teenagers to come along and have their say - the first time this has ever happened in the town in my experience. Unfortunate that only six Town Councillors turned up. At the beginning of the meeting there were some very puzzled folk trying to keep up with the proceedings - including your correspondent. Some of us couldn't understand why we were being shown pictures of fridges dumped on the kerbside, graffiti and cracked paving stones and what this had to to do with Policing as we thought we knew it. One lady said.....If I saw something dumped I would ring up Environmental Health at the Council - not the Police. Not any more apparently. Now its a Neighbourhood Action Group organised in the short term by the Police who will be drawing up an Action Plan together with its "partners" (councils, public agencies etc) to sort these kind of things out. The Action Group will consist of ordinary members of the community - recruited in a way as yet unspecified - trying to develop solutions to priority problems identified by asking the public through research questionnaires and meetings like this one. It might have helped if somebody had explained at the beginning of the meeting that the government has recently introduced legislation which now requires the Police working in partnership with local government and the community to address issues of "quality of life" and find creative solutions to local problems. Neighbourhood Management is the Police response to this new demand on their resources. Yet we have been told so often that the Police is short of staff that we wondered how they would find the time for all this. Wouldn't it make them less effective at catching real criminals Presumably the theory is something like....members of the community have to accept that they themselves must take a lot of the responsibility for issues of safety and behaviour and good order. Its not just a question of leaving it to the Police. And as this attitude develops and communities police themselves more in terms of anti-social behaviour and petty crime, so scarce Police resources will be released to be deployed against the more serious stuff. Sounds OK in theory! The meeting moved on to identifying the problem issues in Chippy. New licensing laws, speeding cars, inconsiderate parking, slow police response times, failure of parental control, difficulty of contacting and remoteness of the police, absence of police presence, anti-social behaviour, underage drinking - all these came up and were written up on the whiteboards. But the presence of the young people was decisive - they kept hauling the discussion back to the absence of facilities for young people in the town. "There's a Youth Club but its only open one night a week" "We want a place in the centre of town that we can drop into" "We want a disco somewhere on Friday nights. At the moment we have to go into Banbury and it costs too much" "What else is there for us to do except hang around" "You should stop complaining about us and find some money to get us some facilities" "By the time you get round to doing anything I will have grown up and won't be interested any more". The bombardment was remorseless. You might even say they bullied us into submission. Whatever. After we had carefully scored all the issues the top quality of life issue in Chipping Norton - by a mile - turned out to be LACK OF FACILITIES FOR YOUTH. Now this is not exactly news. The problem for years has been in trying to interest the County Council and in finding money or premises. But there was a very real sense in the Town Hall that the young people's patience had run out. They were fed up with all the talk and demanding some action....and that is what they were promised by the Police would come out of the Neighbourhood Action Group. Pretty rash. I thought. But lets see. Perhaps this is just the catalyst thats needed. Perhaps the politicians have had their chance and clearly missed the boat. One of the teenage crowd was certainly up for serving on the NAG. And there was at least one potential leader on parade. Talking to some of them afterwards it is really daft that we don't use the Town Hall for Friday night discos and its even more daft that we have a Youth Centre and its only open one night a week. Mind you the other two priority issues for the audience were anti-social behaviour and underage drinking......the teenagers - not surprisingly - didn't seem to think these were such big problems. Indeed one of the audience expressed the view that in Chippy over age drinking was just as big a problem as the underage kind!! At the end of the evening it was the enthusiasm and commitment of Nick Deacon, Claire Mackintosh (pictured above) and Simon Towers which carried this project forward. They obviously feel this is a promising approach and will pay big dividends. We trust their judgement and we believe they are on our side. They deserve our support. Any volunteers
West Oxfordshire area commander Chief Insp Dennis Evernden has urged the public to take more responsibility for young people hanging around on street corners and avoid "demonising" them. Launching a neighbourhood policing initiative for Chipping Norton, Charlbury and the Wychwoods, Chief Insp Evernden said: "When people will walk around a group of young people in the street I think it speaks volumes about our attitude to children in the community. "If you take away that anonymity that group instantly becomes less threatening. We have to have a social responsibility for our own children beyond our own front doors."
A survey carried out in Chipping Norton earlier this month asked 200 people what they thought were the most important community safety issues in the area. The top answer was "young people hanging around", mentioned by 76 people, followed by traffic, which 71 people thought was a problem, and antisocial behaviour, mentioned by 35 people.
Thames Valley Police is forming a series of neighbourhood management units to try to respond to specific local problems. A neighbourhood management unit for Bampton, Burford and Carterton has already been set up, and youths hanging around has been mentioned as a big problem in that area. Mr Evernden and Sgt Clare Mackintosh, the Chipping Norton neighbourhood manager, said the police had tools for dealing with antisocial behaviour, but hanging around in the street was not a crime. Sgt Mackintosh said: "It's large groups of young people hanging around on the town hall steps or on street corners -- they don't necessarily have to be doing anything to intimidate people. "It's not a crime at all, although it could be they're causing offences while they're hanging around. "If they're dropping litter, spitting on the streets or using foul language, then there are things like acceptable behaviour contracts we can use."
Mr Evernden said: "The perception is if you wear a hoodie you're a criminal, and that's rubbish. "It's about sorting the wheat from the chaff, and then engaging with the young people, not just us but people like youth outreach workers. If it's not a crime but a social issue we need to say so. "People are very short on understanding how they can tackle these issues, they say we need more policing, but the problem is they're unfairly demonising these youths."