We need to be careful when dealing with our communities across Ipswich
PUBLISHED: 05:30 16 January 2020
As someone born in east Suffolk and who has lived in Ipswich for the last 33 years, I feel I have built up an understanding of the town and my fellow residents.
Not everyone who lives in the town feels exactly the same about everything - in fact there are 133,384 opinions on a variety of subjects in the town (or at least there were in 2011!).
But on the whole I have found it a very welcoming, friendly place where most people are prepared to give others the benefit of the doubt.
I am aware not everyone feels exactly the same way. Social media has given the discontented minority a voice (usually anonymously) although whether these accounts are really from Ipswich residents or Russian bots I really don't know!
One of the things I learned long ago, before even starting life as a journalist in the early 1980s, is that it is important to distinguish facts from opinion - and it is usually best to have some facts at your disposal before your develop and express an opinion.
That is, I believe, where Ipswich MP Tom Hunt left himself open to criticism in the comments he made in his column last week.
I have no doubt if you knock on as many doors as he has over the last 15 months that you will hear many opinions on the nature of Ipswich society and how it has changed over recent years.
I am sure that if you speak to many thousands of residents you will find a considerable number who are concerned about those changes, who feel they have been left behind and who would really rather things had stayed as they were in the "good old days."
However many people think that it is the responsibility of a community leader to try to ease fears by explaining some of the issues facing the town rather than just say this is what worries people even if there is no clear reason why they should be worried in the first place.
There has always been petty crime in Ipswich (and I suspect everywhere else in the country) and it has always been portrayed as being worse than it was 10 or 20 years previously.
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As a young reporter in the mid-1980s I remember shop theft being a staple of Ipswich Magistrates' Court. Is this kind of crime worse now than it was 35 years ago? Let's see the evidence.
The idea that people feel uncomfortable about groups of men gathering in the town centre with no apparent purpose is understandable. But perhaps an explanation of why this might happen would be useful.
Former Ipswich Conservative MP Ben Gummer explained it perfectly in a column he wrote back in 2016 - explaining that many of those who gathered on the streets were migrants working anti-social hours in the food processing industry and who basically had nowhere else to get together.
If you live in a tiny flat or have a room in a House of Multiple Occupation, where else do you meet your friends? I can see why suggesting that the police should move people on for talking to their friends (even if it is in a foreign language) might prompt unease among some.
What we really need in our town is the kind of work that goes on largely behind the scenes with people working quietly together to bring diverse communities together.
It's the kind of work Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner Tim Passmore was talking about earlier this week when he said: "In my commissioning role I also support many communities in Ipswich to tackle crime and disorder reduction in the town."
Ten years ago we used to hear that there were too many Poles in Ipswich, they were always gathering on street corners and talking loudly in voices that local people didn't understand.
The Polish community has now largely assimilated into our society. I'm sure they speak Polish at home or with their friends from the same background - but they have largely integrated through church groups, their children's attendance at local schools, and from work connections.
I see no reason why that shouldn't happen with other communities. But these things take time and attempts to rush integration too fast are never likely to succeed.
And these efforts at bringing people together need the active support of all community leaders: politicians from all parties, religious leaders, and others like teachers, public servants and the police.
What is needed from all sides is an understanding that while there natural concerns about changes to society, sensitive handling can ease the process of that change.