On Monday the 25th of June 2012 I visited Wisbech to observe the process of setting the local police priorities in action.
- More than one hundred and ten people completed a questionnaire on Wisbech’s policing during the course of the day.
- Local County, District, and Town councillors discussed the policing of the town with the police sergeant responsible, in a meeting open for public participation.
- There is an 80% detection rate for shoplifting in Wisbech
- Five people have been “repatriated” in-relation to street drinking and rough sleeping in Wisbech following work between the police, Fenland District Council and the UK Border Agency. Cllr Farmer said this would be applauded by his constituents.
- During the “neighbourhood forum” meeting, Wisbech’s Mayor, Cllr Mrs Viv MacRae (so she is styled), blamed littering in the town on “those not of English origin” and laughed about the habit of “those not of English origin” to leave part drunk cans of beer on walls, to go shopping, and return to their cans later.
- The area’s policing priorities are to be set in private, by Inspector Sissons, acting alone. His decision will not be generally made public, despite a request for this to happen from Cllr Tiereny, instead only councillors, and those who completed the survey, will be emailed the Inspector’s decision.
- The priorities will be set only on the basis of the public, and councillors’ comments, and without reference to any crime statistics, or other data for example on crime related injuries.
- About ten minutes into the Wisbech Town Council meeting, Wisbech’s Mayor, Cllr Mrs Viv MacRae, ruled mobiles had to be switched off, thereby preventing live tweeting of the meeting.
Police Priority Setting in Wisbech
I have previously written about the confusion surrounding what was planned, and the fact neither the ShapeYourPlace, Cambridgeshire Police, Police.UK, Wisbech Town Council or Fenland District Council websites carried information on what was going on and how the priorities were to be set.
Wisbech Police Station is one of the most imposing buildings in the town, prominently sited next to the yacht harbour. It looks almost disused though, with a faded sign, and a notice board containing only a faded (to the point of illegible) map of, well I presume of the town. There was no sign at all of the fact the police were consulting on their priorities on that day. Similarly at Fenland District Council’s office, there was no mention of that day’s events. Even at the Wisbech Town Council chambers neither notice board outside carried details even of the Town Council meeting scheduled for that evening, never mind the police consultative meetings which were also being held.
The police were on Fenland District Council’s “CrimeBuster” bus which they had parked outside the council chamber. I spoke to a Fenland District Council officer who was acting as the bus conductor, he told me, when I asked, that the police priorities for Wisbech were to be set at a “neighbourhood forum” event in the Council Chamber at 18.00. This was the first I’d heard of this, despite searching for information on what was happening, he also showed me the large wodge of questionnaires which had been completed. The police sergeant and PCSO present were busy talking to people, so I left and returned later.
When I returned I spoke to Sgt Robin Cawston (1413). I asked him about the advertising of that day’s consultation exercise and told him I’d found it hard to find out what was going on. I then asked if there was any report on police performance against previous priorities, about crime in the area, or other data to inform those seeking to influence the priorities. I was told there was no such information available, either for the Neighbourhood Forum event, or the Town Council, as the police were only interested in people’s raw, uninformed, views.
I asked what anti-social behaviour means in Wisbech. I noted ASB in Wisbech had been highlighted in a paper to the Cambridgeshire Police Authority meeting to be held on the 28th of June 2012 that report states:
Scrutiny of perception data for March identified an increase in perception of High ASB in Fenland (particularly Wisbech). … In addition, calls from the public regarding an ASB hotspot in Wisbech will receive an enhanced response (under the newly introduced dispatch policy).
I was told that in Wisbech “ASB” can be anything from loud noise to fights, with fights, particularly in the town centre, being the key form of problematic antisocial behaviour. (Later Cllr Farmer said this was something he viewed as characteristic of the town)
Another thing which arrives in Police HQ from Wisbech (and the locality) is request to change the White (Other) classification for the ethnic background of those coming into contact with the police, to differentiate between those of various different White European backgrounds. I asked Sgt. Cawston about this and he said nationality was already recorded and he thought this was sufficient. I agree with him. We also talked about translation, and its costs and impacts, Sgt. Cawston said this really wasn’t a problem locally as his officers spoke Russian and Lativian; he noted that some of the consultation which had taken place in the town that day had been carried out in those languages, just as a normal part of the activities with no extra costs or delays being incurred.
I was reasonably impressed with the Sergeant, the bus, but the exercise was let down by a lack of publicity, and even a lack of an explanation outside the bus of what it was there for. I think we need to get people used to the fact they regularly get a chance to have in input into the setting of their local police priorities and publicise when police priority setting time comes round.
Wisbech Neighbourhood Forum
At 18.00 the police went up into the town council chamber, initially there were eleven of us, the Sgt. Robin Cawston, PCSO Gary Banks, an officer from Fenland District Council, County Council Tierney, me and six Wisbech Town Councillors, at least one of whom is also a Fenland District Councillor.
The meeting was introduced as being an informal neighbourhood forum. The first topic discussed was the behaviour of those drinking in the town centre. Cllr Tierney raised this saying it was a previous priority. The police stated they were going to continue working on this, and explained that the main problem was on Friday and Saturday nights and that they had adopted a “cross over shifts” working pattern enabling them to have extra officers on at the key times.
Operation Titan was also mentioned, which is a police term for a team of officers which can be placed in either March or Wisbech as required to deal with specific problems. An example was given of a Lativian festival recently which had prompted the deployment of the team in Wisbech. The Sergeant stated “Operation Titan” would continue through the end of the football, and to the end of the year, through the Olympics too.
Once the Olympics had been mentioned Cllr Farmer asked about how many officers would be going from Fenland to police the Olympics. Sgt. Cawston said that 65% of Fenland’s officers would be retained in Fenland, and the officers were being taking from across the force area. The meeting was assured though that coupled with restrictions on leave there would be a minimal impact on policing numbers. A councillor asked if special constables could fill the gap, to be told the number of specials in Wisbech was in the “low double figures” and many were “not active”.
Cllr Farmer noted there was only one member of the public present, and no members of the public from Wisbech, were at the forum, he questioned how the meeting had been advertised. Sgt. Cawston dodged the question and instead listed a few ways it might be good to promote the meeting including: “YourSpace”, Local Papers, and Ecops as well as via Neighbourhood Watch. With commendable honesty Sgt. Cawston said he had failed to inform all those surveyed during the day of the meeting.
The suitability of the council chamber as a venue was discussed, some councillors thought members of the public might find that intimidating (It might be less intimidating if there wasn’t a dress code and the public didn’t get chastised for silently tweeting on their phones!), the view generally appeared to be that it was a well located central building. Sgt. Cawston suggested the Rose and Crown pub (I’d walked past not long before and it was pretty empty) but said that might be costly. If held there I could imagine meeting goers might buy teas and coffees from the bar, and the venue would be doing something positive for the town by hosting the meeting, I think it would be worth giving it a go.
Sgt. Cawston did say he had already thought that next time, in September/October, he would park the bus in a better location in the town centre where there was a higher footfall going right past.
The meeting was told that at least 110 responses to the questionnaire had been completed, with perhaps more to be returned later, and others expected to come in electronically. In addition councillors’ views from the forum were to be fed in too. As the questionnaire results had not yet been analysed, the police announced their priorities were not going to be set at the forum meeting. This came as a surprise to the Fenland District Council officer I think, who had just a few minutes earlier told me in good faith that the purpose of the meeting was to set priorities. Next time perhaps the forum event with councillors ought be scheduled for a couple of days after any police-public engagement event with the bus and questionnaires.
The Fenland District Council Officer stated that the Fenland Community Safety Partnership would probably set whatever Inspector Sissons made his top priority as one of the partnership’s priorities. (Quite what goes on in the Fenland Community Safety Partnership no one knows as it is an entirely secret organisation).
Cllr Tierney asked if there had been any “crime patterns”. Sgt. Cawston replied to say the main one was caravans being stolen in Wisbech and being recovered in London. While the meeting was told the caravans were expensive ones being stolen for their value as caravans, and not scrap metal, the discussion moved to metal theft.
Cllr Farmer asked if police officers in Wisbech would recognise a catalytic converter if they saw one. Sgt. Cawston asked the PCSO if he had been trained in such things, the PCSO stated he had had a session with a detective about what to look for, but didn’t answer the direct question.
The meeting was then told the number one crime in Wisbech was shoplifting, at a petty, non-organised, level. Sgt. Cawston said that there was an 80% detection rate for reported shoplifting offences (this may well be as those which are reported are those shop staff think the police have a chance at solving?). Councillors and police said they thought it would be good to promote this 80% figure, so potential shoplifters knew the odds were against them.
A new CCTV and information sharing scheme was discussed, Sgt. Cawston stated shopkeepers who “signed the Data Protection Act” could have access to CCTV images of known shoplifters. (Film and TV drama dialogue sometimes talks of signing the Official Secrets Act but that’s the first time I’ve heard the phrase used in conjunction with the Data Protection Act). The Fenland District Council officer said that he hoped there would be increased reporting and recording of shoplifting following the introduction of the renewed “shop watch” style scheme, but that he hoped detection levels would stay high due to the technology providing better quality evidence. Councillors asked if the system would share shoplifter’s images across borders – eg. from Norfolk, they were assured it would.
Cllr Tierney raised a problem with illegal parking on Church Road in Leverington by a school, in some way related to “pinch points”.
The discussion then turned to people being drunk in some gardens (my notes say “medieval gardens” but I’m not sure that’s right), at 10am. Urinating was mentioned as a problem. Sgt. Cawston explained his approach to urinating in public, saying that in the dark against a hedge it was fine, but otherwise potentially not.
Wisbech’s Mayor, Cllr Mrs Viv MacRae related a constituent’s concern that there were no PCSOs in the Market Square on a Saturday, but they were needed to prevent traffic congestion. Cllr Mrs Viv MacRae explained how she acted as a loyal apologist for the police and said the PCSOs would be out somewhere and it was just a case of there never being a police officer when you want one. Cllr Mrs Viv MacRae said that she never visited the Market Square on a Saturday morning but she understood it could be chaotic.
David Oliver the leader of Wisbech Town Council asked about PCSO hours, Sgt. Cawston replied they worked from 8am and “all day”. (Unlike PCs PCSOs do not actually work “all day”, but police officers speaking at public meetings appear unable to say this).
The police were asked how many times they had prosecuted people for cycling on the pavement in Wisbech this year. Sgt. Cawston said he wasn’t certain of the number, but was pretty sure that statistic “tends to zero”.
Cllr Farmer said his dog had been run over twice by cyclists on the pavement.
The only other member of the public present, who arrived towards the end of the meeting, stated his wife had been almost killed by a cyclist on the pavement.
Litter was discussed next, at great length. The Fenland District Council “litter line” was promoted.
Cllr Hoy suggested paying people to collect litter, particularly cans, the idea being they have some scrap value, but the state could offer a bonus. Sgt. Cawston noted historically beer had been sold in bottles which would be returned to get a deposit on the bottle back, though he didn’t appear to be actively proposing banning cans and moving to on-deposit bottles only in Wisbech.
Cllr Farmer asked if drug dealers in Wisbech used children on bikes to deliver drugs. Sgt. Cawston said: “No”. Cllr Tiereny said they do, and offered to give Sgt. Cawston more information. Sgt. Cawston said drug deliveries tended to be by moped, so by those aged at least 16 and some much older.
Cllr Hoy raised a personal matter. She said her, and her neighbours had had their car tyres stabbed in April, and the police had still not got back to her at all in any way following her reporting the matter. Sgt. Cawston explained that what should have happened, if there was no further action the police could take, is someone should have called her explaining that and telling her all they could do was file the case. Sgt. Cawston said the force was trying to ensure people were told when there was nothing the police could do.
The Fenland District Council officer suggested a return to discussing the apparent previous top priority of street drinking. Sgt. Cawston reported there was a problem with people sleeping in Lloyds Bank’s doorway, and paying 20p to gain entry to toilets and sleeping there. Sgt. Cawston said he and his officers found it difficult to knock on the toilet door and challenge someone proving they were not legitimately using the facilities. He also said there had been “five repatriations”, he explained that Fenland Council viewed being caught rough sleeping as being contrary to a visa condition specifying “no recourse to public funds”, and the council was working closely with the UKBA.
This concerns me; I don’t think rough sleeping (or camping!) counts as recourse to public funds.
Cllr Farmer said the news there had been five repatriations would be applauded by his constituents.
Sgt. Cawston noted the term is “repatriations” not “deportations” but I’m not sure why.
The meeting was drawn to a close, with Sgt. Cawston saying the questionairres would be analysed and the outcome sent to those who’d filled them in and to councillors (though not made public as Cllr Tiereny had specifically suggested).
Following the meeting the other member of the public who had turned up late and complained rather dramatically about cycling on the pavement approached Cllr Tiereny and I and said his view of the meeting was: “Waste of time”. We both took the view it wasn’t quite that bad, and there was potential for improvement.
Next time I’d like to see:
- Priorities set by councillors, after hearing from the public, at the Neighbourhood Forum meeting.
- The police held to account by councillors for their performance against the previous priorities.
- Key crime statistics presented, in a report made public well before the priority setting meeting.
- Other data, eg. injury, or financial loss, or “repatriations” etc. relating to current or proposed priorities included in the report.
- Councillors made aware of what other information could be provided (or even collected) to assist their priority setting decisions.
- Assistance given to councillors to help them set evidence based quantitative priorities.
- Any police-public consultation events (such as that using the bus) held prior to the Neighbourhood Forum so the results can be collated and fed-in via a public report.
- Active encouragement for people to film, blog, tweet the meeting.
- Promotion of the priority setting process via all channels available to the police, councils, councillors, and everyone else!
Wisbech Town Council
There are two notice boards outside Wisbech Town Council (and they employ an array of staff at taxpayer’s expense) yet there was no notice outside saying there was a meeting taking place.
The published agenda omits all papers “circulated”; it appears these are generally sent by email and not available to the press and public at the meeting, and councillors generally don’t bring them along.
The meeting started early. Mayor, Cllr Mrs Viv MacRae, explained this was to allow Eliot Johnston of the “Youth Council” (also chair of the local Conservative Future) to address, and answer questions, from the council.
Apologies were taken next, a husband and wife team of independent councillors had sent in their apologies as they were both on holiday; as had Cllr Dave Patrick had given his apologies saying he was at a Fenland District Council meeting about taxis. This prompted some debate as other Fenland District Councillors debated if there was any such meeting on. The mayor then called for someone to proposed the apologies be accepted, a councillor duly did and once seconded the council took a vote on if they were going to accept the apologies sent in or not. This is quite odd and something I’ve not seen before. As it was the apologies were all unanimously accepted. I wonder if sometimes they don’t accept an apology and what happens then – do they send out the
beagle beadle to round up the wayward councillor(s)?
Declarations of interest were taken next. Cllr Hoy admitted she was a member of the Cambridgeshire Fire Authority. No one proposed or seconded this be accepted and there was no vote on the matter.
The absent police report, which Sgt. Cawston denied existed, and no councillor could provide me with a copy of, though a couple stated definitely did exist, was unanimously noted.
At this point Mayor, Cllr Mrs Viv MacRae, ruled mobile phones had to be turned off completely in the council chamber. I left the chamber at this point to report to my followers what had happened and a councillor got up and closed the door after I had left, apparently to prevent me from being able to hear proceedings outside and to tweet about them. I noted the key had been left in the outside of the council chamber door anyone could have locked them all in.
The council’s published advice for the public stated:
It is requested that all mobile phones be switched onto silent or preferably turned off altogether.
My phone was silent.
I turned my phone off and returned to the meeting. Fortunately I had brought my notepad and pen and was not relying on my phone to make notes on proceedings.
I returned to a presentation on dog fouling. The mobile phone and twitter ban saved twitter from an hour and a half of live tweets on the subject of dog poo in Fenland. (Actually as my phone was off I don’t know how long it was, but a number of people estimated it was well over an hour). The council’s subject matter expert gave a power point presentation on Dog Control orders, and the council’s dog poo related enforcement policies. We were told there are 800 reports of dog poo in Fenland each year. Twelve dog control orders are to be brought in relating to playing fields and play grounds in Fenland, each has two zones, and orange zone where dogs must be on a lead, and a red zone, where dogs are not allowed at all. We saw maps and photos of these (even those miles from Wisbech) relentlessly powerpoint projected on a screen. The idea being dogs are banned from near play equipment, but are allowed on leads in the rest of the parks.
The officers noted fines, while possible, where not generally their style of enforcement, fines were only used “where necessary”.
The Fenland District Council Officer said there was a problem with people putting dogs in fenced off children’s play areas, leaving them there thinking it was a safe place for them to exercise in, while they, for example, went to the shops.
The meeting was told that the local Housing Association, Roddons might not allow the council to enforce its new rules in its playgrounds.
A councillor asked if National Trust land would be covered by the new policies; the council officer said yes if it was generally publicly accessible. I put exclamation marks next to this in my notes as surely it is up to the National Trust what policies they have on dogs being on leads, or dogs pooing, on their property?
Cllr Davidson asked for an update on a dog poo bin he had requested; he was told it was on its way.
Cllr Farmer noted the presentation had mentioned officers from other bodies could be given the powers to enforce under a dog control order. Cllr Farmer got excited and asked: “In the Town Council, is there scope for a mini-police force”; he was told that where the council was the landowner or in control of the land then it could, under the proposals, seek powers to issue the £75 fines. Later Cllr Farmer explained to me Wisbech Town council owned lots of allotment land on which dog fouling is a problem.
Cllr Hoy said she has asked a play worker if she had ever seen a child eat dog poo and was told she never had. Fenland District Council’s dog poo expert said there was no need for a child to …. [she mimed eating dog poo] in order to acquire a disease / infection from it, she explained bacteria could transfer from one surface to another.
A streetscene report, available only in councillors email in-boxes, and not to the public, even those of us who went to the meeting, was passed.
Minutes of Previous Meetings, and Committees
Councillors went through a process of proposing, and seconding, with care being take to note who had proposed and seconded what, and vote on a series of minutes; all were passed without comment but the process was very lengthy.
County Councillor Steve Tiereny was co-opted as a Wisbech Town Councillor. A Liberal Democrat questioned if the nomination period had closed, stating it was midnight that night, the clerk said it wasn’t.
Mayor, Cllr Mrs Viv MacRae noted the council could go into secret session if they wanted to, to discuss the nomination, no councillors proposed this course of action.
The nomination was formally proposed and seconded, with the clerk being careful to note who’s hand went up first and was formally recorded as being the proposer and seconder. A vote was taken and Cllr Tiereny was co-opted, the two Liberal Democrats abstained. Cllr Tiereny then signed the declaration of office and took a seat at the table.
I’ve been told Cllr Tiereny is the only co-optee on the council and the others have been elected in actual elections where people draw crosses on ballot papers.
Freedom of Wisbech
The clerk introduced the item, saying that if approved, he would, at a cost of £800 get a “freedom scroll” made. The Liberal Democrats made noises of objection to this largess with taxpayer’s money. The clerk added he would also organise a special council meeting with a “reception”, members of the Conservative majority made noises indicating they liked this idea.
The name of the individual proposed for the freedom was requested, and given as: “Richard Barnwell, formally a member of this hall”.
Mayor, Cllr Mrs Viv MacRae announced Mr Barnwell had indicated he would be honoured to accept the Freedom of Wisbech if it was offered by the council.
There was proposing, and seconding, and a vote in favour of the spending and the award.
The agenda in relation to this item reads:
Following the removal of the Dann’s Heritage Clock from the frontage of William Brown’s Lettings, members are asked to consider what action Wisbech Town Council will take.
Councillors were asked to discuss what they could do. Councillors voted 7:4 in favour of doing something.
Councillors asked for more background information, Mayor, Cllr Mrs Viv MacRae, said she knew the answers to questions such as where the clock was due to be sold at auction but wouldn’t tell as it was “sensitive” and there were “legal matters to consider”. The council then voted on a (properly proposed and seconded) motion to “support any groups trying to get something done so the clock can be retained”, this gained unanimous support.
Cllr Farmer asked those interested to speak to him afterwards.
Nominating the Rosmini Centre for The Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service
Mayor, Cllr Mrs Viv MacRae made an announcement warning the press that it would be premature to report the result of the vote on this item in the paper as the nomination was not actually the award.
The motion to nominate the group was formally proposed, seconded, and unanimously supported.
Leader of the Council’s Report
The leader of Wisbech Town Council said there was nothing to report, and indeed no report, as he had been ill. He apparently didn’t think this was sufficient so added: “everything is going swimmingly” before sitting down.
No one proposed, or seconded, this non-report and hence there was no vote.
Mayor, Cllr Mrs Viv MacRae’s Report
Mayor, Cllr Mrs Viv MacRae, said a list of events she’d been to would be boring so she wasn’t going to provide one.
She said she had been to the 1st Wisbech Arts festival, and hoped that there would be a 2nd but noted some of the events in the 1st had “not been supported by the public”.
She said she has also visited the NSPCC King’s Lynn and Wisbech, and said it was interesting to see how they spent their money, which she said they were currently doing on “Childline to be installed in schools”.
Letters of Thanks
These were noted.
Service Level Agreement for North Wisbech Youth Project
Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue service have entered a Service Level Agreement with the North Wisbech Youth Project. I have no idea what this is about as the paper is not available to me. I do wonder why public bodies won’t just do the right thing and why everything needs a formal contract and service level agreement.
It was noted the council is flying the flag for armed forces day (which it was).
The agenda noted the main flagpole has lost its rope. The clerk said the council’s
beagle beadle (one of its other staff) has been instructed to get the old rope (which has broken) and to buy a replacement, and when the replacement has been obtained a cherry picker will be hired to fit the new rope. The clerk noted it was important to have the new rope first, before hiring the expensive cherry picker as otherwise the cost of hiring the cherry picker would be wasted.
An armed forces day event was promoted, and councillors told they will get free rides in a simulator if they attend. (Giving them all something to put in the gifts and hospitality register!).
Mayor, Cllr Mrs Viv MacRae, formally closed the meeting at 20:45.
After the meeting I invited her to speak to me on camera and explain her mobile phone, and therefore twitter, ban. She at first accepted, but said just not there and then, I offered at any time of her choosing but then she declined completely. She explained she didn’t like people using phones “during conversations” and said she didn’t tweet herself (revealing she knew exactly what she was stopping when she made the ruling requiring phones to be turned off). Mayor, Cllr Mrs Viv MacRae stated that using a mobile phone amounted to a disturbance to the meeting.
I note its not just those who tweet who are affected by a ban on mobiles; there are all sorts of reasons why people might want to be contactable in case of emergency, and might not want to turn their phones off.
While no councillors challenged the mayor’s ruling during the meeting, many said afterwards that they thought it was wrong. One said it stopped him being able to get at meeting papers he had on his email on his phone. Other councillors said if they couldn’t use their phones they might bring in their laptops to the next meeting and see if Mayor, Cllr Mrs Viv MacRae, then decides phones are preferable. Two councillors said they don’t have laptops and if others were bringing in laptops in protest, they might have to bring in their full desktop PCs including CRT monitors.
I wonder how long Cllr Mrs Viv MacRae will remain as Mayor of Wisbech?