Five years to eradicate gangs, drugs and violence, council leader warns
Youth service cuts were not to blame for a spike in gang-related crime, according to the county council's cabinet member for Ipswich, who thinks it could take five years to tackle the problem.
Paul West was among leaders to attend a public meeting following the killing of Tavis Spencer-Aitkens, when council chiefs were accused of taking away activities for young people in the area.
He insisted local government could not solve problems alone, and that the focus should be on the realistic goal of minimising risk, rather than eradicating gang related violence altogether.
“A lot of progress has since been made, in that the borough, county and police, under the multi-agency team, have stepped up work to address issues, said Mr West.
“There have always been gangs and drugs, but with new intensity and severity, which everyone is still learning to address.
“There have been successes. The fall in county lines (from 40 to 19 drug chains) is a step in the right direction and can be attributed to enforcement and intelligence.
“In terms of councils, there has been work to engage young people and focus on the most vulnerable.”
Mr West said work was in place before university lecturer Dr Paul Andell published research into levels of crime in the Jubilee Park and Nacton Road areas – nine months before the fatal stabbing.
“It would be wrong to say nothing was happening; that the report drew our attention to the problem and everything started afterwards,” he added.
“But it did raise challenges, which have been risen to by the extra focus of the multi-agency team stepping up work that was taking place before.
“Our strategic action plan helps draw that activity together.”
The strategic action plan and tactical action plan aim to end the impact of gangs and county lines drug markets, prevent exploitation, anti-social behaviour, violence and weapons crime.
Objectives include enhancing community safety by making Suffolk a less viable county lines market, safeguarding the young and vulnerable, improving understanding of high harm (heroin and crack) and reducing risks to dependent users.
Mr West said: “To get on top of this, I believe, is a five-year job.
“We have a goal of eliminating it, but need to be realistic. We want to focus on minimising risk so that as few people are involved with the least impact on everyone.
“There are a million and one different arguments for a rise in gang crime or violence but I don't think cuts were the reason.
“The number of youths receiving custodial sentences has dropped and there are now fewer entering the criminal justice system, but the consequences are worse than they used to be.”
Mr West said the approach to furthering aspirations and skills needed to be focused and of high quality, addressing niche areas and patterns of behaviour, rather than what “middle-aged people think is appropriate”.
“It's no longer about putting a pool table in a youth club,” he said.
“We have to engage the voluntary sector, because it can't all be delivered by the council.
“Making sure 10-year-olds don't become future gang members is likely to be more successful than focusing on when someone is 16.
“There is work going on to train youth workers to recognise signs and have difficult conversations.
“It's important the council facilitates an environment where lots of things can happen, but we can't do it alone.”
Last year, a report by the St Giles Trust claimed pupil referral units, which provide education for those outside mainstream schools, appeared to be “fertile ground” for county lines recruitment, and that exclusion was a trigger point for the escalation of involvement for children on the fringes.
Mr West said: “There is a discussion to be had about the right way to deal with excluded children. We need to look after them in a way that benefits them.
“It's not just a Suffolk issue, but our lead attendance officer is offering additional support to those individuals.”
For those in regular education, Mr West predicted a move towards on-site pastoral support, already seen in some schools within large academy trusts.
“We're not saying it's the blueprint, but I think it's a natural progression,” he said.
“It can't all be dictated by central government, but it still has to be assisted by the county council.
“I've never been one to say any one tier of government has all the answers.
“We've done a lot of work with teachers to feel comfortable about the subject and to pick up the signs in young people.”