Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Down These Mean Streets

"Blimey! Even his beard's been nicked."

Yesterday Tyler met up with a friend who lives in Sir Ian "Bonkers" Blair's crime-free metropolis. The friend confirms that he and his neighbours do indeed routinely leave their frontdoors unlocked, but only because the doors have been jemmied open the previous night and the Polish locksmith hasn't yet got round to fix them.

He and his wife live in Primrose Hill, where crime is rampant, but the Met are "too busy" to do anything about it. Well no, that's not fair: in conjunction with the People's Republic of Camden they have set up a Safer Neighbourhoods policing team, boasting:

"Safer Neighbourhoods is a truly local policing style: local people working with local police and partners to identify and tackle issues of concern in their neighbourhood... Each team has a minimum of six uniformed officers comprising one sergeant, two constables and three police community support officers, dedicated solely to the needs of one specific neighbourhood. "

Except of course, you can never get hold of any of them. The mean streets of Primrose Hill- home to bankers, media types, and David Milliband- are not deemed to need their full complement of police, so they've been redeployed elsewhere. The rest are doing paperwork, or skulking around well out of harms way. But that's OK, because Blair's Met and the People's Republic reckon the crime problem is all in the mind anyway:

"Despite recorded crime falling in Camden and the UK in general, research shows that a third of people believe crime has risen "a lot".

Clearly people like my friend don't need policing, they need counselling. (The real facts are summarised here- Primrose Hill has the fifth highest overall ward crime figures in London).

Anyway, this friend recently intervened in yet another attempted vehicle theft in his road. The young thug involved is notorious locally, and reponded by threatening to burn down my friend's house, with him in it. And since then, he's attempted to assault him while out walking. The police response (after four unanswered phone calls and only because my friend had spotted a rare community policeman hunkered down outside a kebab shop) was:

"I see Sir. Well, there's nothing we can do. But you should get all this down in writing to us, because if... er... anyone gets hurt... we've got a record."


For most people of course, the only option from there is to purchase a baseball bat and a Ninja sword.

But Primrose Hill is different: it's rich. So the residents have another option: private security patrols.

It began after one couple "came home after an evening out to be ambushed by three masked men armed with machetes and clubs. They were forced into their house in Lower Merton Rise with their two children and marched from room to room at knifepoint. They were ordered to hand over money and valuables, an experience which left the family traumatised."

Hardly surprising then that residents realised they could no longer rely on the police to protect them. Instead they clubbed together to pay for a private security firm to patrol the road.

For £1,000 pa each, they get regular visible patrols, and a "meet and greet" service if they come home late. "The guards carry no weapons and have no police-style powers, but can carry out citizens' arrests. A spokesman said: "We have caught car thieves breaking into a vehicle and caused what we know were burglars to leave the area. If criminals see us, hopefully they will move on."

And business is booming. Not only have other roads in Primrose Hill taken up the idea, but from South Kensington to Hampstead Garden Suburb there are now hundreds of similar schemes across London alone.

The police are completely cool with it. A Yard spokesman said: "We recognise the role security firms have to play in reassuring sections of the community." Clearly they see the ex-Israeli, South African, Russian, Ukrainian and British soldiers who man the patrols primarily as outreach counsellors, which saves them the bother.

Less relaxed are other local residents who are not subscribers. That's mainly because they're feeling the brunt of machete gangs displaced from the patrolled roads, although some fret about more Millibandesque issues- the editor of Wallpaper* ("the online resource for international design interiors and lifestyle"), recently moved up to Primrose Hill from downmarket Dalston, and has been driven to some serious handwringing:

"There has been much talk of how to prevent crime in my bijou corner of north London. Half of the residents are keen on an improved neighbourhood watch scheme and, Cameron-like, on cuddling the hoodies who have been causing the problem. The other half want to hire a private security firm to patrol the streets and keep the riff-raff away.

The latter proposal hovers dangerously close to class apartheid: why should the residents of Camden's less photogenic corners be made to feel unwelcome by Primrose Hill residents just because they can't afford to live there?"

Clearly the machete boys haven't visited him yet.

According to the Met's 2006 Policing Plan, their total projected spending in 2006-07 will be £3bn, and total police numbers will be 31,582. Given the Met area population of 7.4m, that means each of us gets £400 pa of policing (equals around £1,000 pa per household). Those are significant sums, and you can bet the residents of Primrose Hill contibute more than their fair share of the costs. They are lucky to be able to afford private policing as well, but many many people cannot.

The lesson should not need repeating, but let's do it anyway. Britain's current policing arrangements cost us plenty, but are totally unresponsive to the paying customers. Roll on elected sheriffs. And Met Commissioners.


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