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Council Estates (Security Patrols)

Part of Clause 38 – in the House of Commons at 10:50 pm on 13th June 1988.

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Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon 10:50 pm, 13th June 1988

Those are operational matters for the chief constable to decide. Although the police have the primary role to play in crime prevention, they need not necessarily have the major role to play in setting up neighbourhood watch schemes. In many parts of the country, the local community has taken the lead and demanded neighbourhood watch schemes in those areas. I have seen that on numerous visits around the country.

It is clear from recent published research—and by recent I mean within the past 14 days—that, on some of the most difficult housing estates in the country, concentrated neigbourhood watch schemes can produce radical reductions in crime. I do not think that neighbourhood watch works only in the leafy suburbs or in middle-class, well organised areas; it works extremely well in many areas where there are housing estates. The research to which I have referred deals with an estate in Rochdale. That estate suffered from difficulties similar to those experienced on the housing estate referred to by my hon. Friend. The estate in Rochdale housed 2,000 people, but in only seven months under an intensive neighbourhood watch scheme, domestic burglaries were reduced by 60 per cent. That depended a great deal on the commitment of local people and the police. It also depended on the commitment of all the people involved in running the estate.

That is important, and that is where my hon. Friend's experience showed as a distinguished ex-chairman of housing in Southampton. He is aware how complex and difficult the problem is and how good management is at the root of so much that can be done on our estates to provide better housing that is desperately needed and a better environment, a better neighbourhood and a safer community in which people can grow up.

The work being carried out by my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning is very important. The Department of the Environment has assisted local authorities to try to manage estates better through the priority estates project, and a similar project is sponsored by the Welsh Office. The priority estates project has achieved remarkable improvements in some very difficult estates through the twin process of devolving responsibility for essential management functions to the estate, rather than doing everything through the town hall, and involving residents as fully as possible in the running of estates.

I am convinced that, in improving the environment, the neighbourhood and community safety, it is critical to use the active citizens who are to be found on all of our estates as much as possible. That is why my Department is impressed by what has been achieved and has mounted its own study into the effects of the approach I have mentioned on the level of vandalism on a sample of estates.

I am delighted that the Department of the Environment in particular can give such formidable help to a number of local schemes around the country, in terms of additional finance, and that the Estates Action programme run by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is contributing so much to, for example, the arrangements to put caretakers into blocks of flats so that they may be properly guarded and secure, with entry and exit made fast.

That has greatly turned around a number of high-rise blocks and estates which were hitherto very rundown. A recent pilot scheme in west London showed what can be achieved. It involved a typical, system-built block of flats, of the kind which can, I know, be found in my hon. Friend's constituency too, which suffered high levels of vandalism and other crime.

The experiment was terribly simple but very effective. Two receptionists were installed. I greatly prefer the term "receptionists", which is a good English phrase, to "concierge"; I do not see why we should use "concierge" in our housing language. Those two receptionists working in shifts and operated a controlled scheme, monitoring those entering and leaving the block. It sounds simple but it was astoundingly effective. They also ran errands for the elderly living in the block and made sure that the lifts worked properly.

As a result, vandalism there went right down, there were no personal attacks during the period of the experiment and there was only one burglary. That experiment has been linked to high levels of crime in blocks of flats not very far away. I have seen a similar scheme operate in Wolverhampton, where the crime rate in the block concerned was cut, but when I walked into other tower blocks in the area I was surrounded by residents screaming, "When are you going to do something about it?"

That is not to say that under certain circumstances the security patrols suggested by my hon. Friend cannnot be of use. I am advised that they are being tried out in some of our midlands cities such as Nottingham, where they have been effective. One wants to go step by step, trying to do all that one can through neighbourhood watch, which I believe has enormous untapped potential, and through the introduction of receptionists, caretakers and intensive management. If necessary, perhaps one can then introduce patrols—but that must be a matter for local decison. In that way, substantial sums of money can be saved. In the case of the one block of flats I mentioned, in Brent, west London, there was an estimated net saving of £17,000 because vandalism, graffiti and other gratuitous damage were reduced. There are considerable lessons for local authorities to learn from that experiment.

Ultimately, the local community must take responsibility. I would dearly like to see in Southampton, and in other areas suffering from similar problems, the local communities themselves, with the encouragement of all involved, banding together to defeat these problems. One should not be afraid, from time to time, of looking back to practices 20, 30 or 40 years ago, when there was greater social control and more people prepared to say, "Oi! Don't do that!" when someone—perhaps a very young child—was about to cause trouble. Perhaps one of the keys for our great housing estates, such as those in Southampton, would be for people—be they patrols, receptionists, caretakers, community policemen or community leaders involved in neighbourhood watch to say, "Oi! Don't do that." In that form of social control, which is not a case of people being nosey parkers but of being good neighbours to one another, we are likely to find some of the roots of a successsful anti-crime drive in this country.