Policing has always been at the top of Bridgwater Town Council’s agenda. For years the Town Council has included item 1 of every meeting for a report by the Police who were open to questioning from Town Councillors. This year the Town has set up a series of Police Forum Meetings where concerns from the public can be discussed and where ward councillors can raise matters specific to their own area and the council can set priorities. Town Council Leader Brian Smedley says “We have now had 2 Police Forums involving senior Police officers along with PCSOs and the new Town Wardens, so we have a great basis for understanding and setting and reviewing ongoing priorities. On top of this our Police liaison Team – myself, Cllr Liz Marsh and Cllr Tim Mander, also attended a separate meeting this week with Avon & Somerset PCC Mark Shelford and further raised our concerns there. “
The Police Forum
Cllr Smedley continued “At the Police Forum meeting we raised some of the major issues that we had been alerted to by constituents. The spate of shop windows being broken -the Town Wardens would liaise with shopkeepers to report these as soon as they happened and via the online portal which is a much quicker route than telephoning. Also, the concerns about potential instances of ‘Hate Crime’ in the area as this had been raised by members of the East Timor community at this years ‘Bridgwater Together’ event. We were told that statistics showed that in the past 12 months there have been 90 reports, 55 of which have been in the Town Centre, but the categories have been split under, violence, criminal damage, graffiti and anti-social behaviour. This figure includes any incident that could be tagged under ‘hate crime’. Specific characteristics can be broken down and stats supplied. There is a national benchmark that is followed. We were partly reassured by the Police view that 90 incidents are low compared to the rest of the UK. However, one hate crime is one too many! An incident is seemingly graded and then resources are looked at to address the incident. PC Sara Norman is the lead on Hate Crime.”
Another incident of potential concern is the response to the hotel for asylum seekers that has been acquired by the Government at Huntworth. Cllr Smedley continued “We were concerned as other hotels around the country had been used by far-right groups to try to stir up race hate and recruit. We were very much reassured that there had been no incidents locally and that the Police attend support group meetings as they do with event organisers, which further reassured us in the light of recent transphobic attacks Nationally and the increase in popularity for ‘Pride’ events locally.”
Cllr Mick Lerry raised issues about the Town Centre ASB and the night-time economy and related public safety issues. The Police said “In January we ran a ‘night-time economy operation’ where one regular ASB person was arrested and with the Police Powers they were not allowed back in the town centre for 24 hours. Police have found that if people come out for the night and see officers in force, it sets the tone for the evening and there are less incidents. Street Pastors have also been very helpful in trying to combat ASB. The Town Wardens have less Powers and tools than the PCSO’s so therefore their shifts end at 9pm. On 31st March from 6 to 10 in the evening the Police have a ‘bus’ coming to the town centre and it contains space for organisations such as the Pastors, Homes in Sedgemoor and the Police officers.”
Other issues raised at the Forum included ‘fly parking’ largely by Hinkley Point workers and speeding ‘boy racers’ who use the town centre as a rat run circuit. Police and Sedgemoor were aware of these issues and dealing with them.
The PCC Meeting
PCC Mark Shelford, who was elected in 2021 as the Conservative candidate, narrowly beating his Labour challenger in the 2nd round of voting, is a former Lt Colonel in the British army and is up for re-election in 2024. Mr Shelford is currently doing a tour of his constituency picking up the concerns of his constituents and plans another tour in 8 months’ time.
Cllr Tim Mander (Transport PFH) said “Whilst last night’s meeting with the PCC had the ring of a “please re-elect me election campaign” the chance to hear from Chief Inspector Justin French and Inspector Rebecca Wells-Cole was actually a productive exercise. I do feel that the Police locally are really beginning to get to grips with crime and disorder issues that many people face in and around the Town Centre including anti-social behaviour; hate crime and racist incidents; vandalism etc. Clearly where there is a mistrust of the Police and a feeling of ‘what’s the point reporting something as nothing will be done’ b we need to encourage the public to get past this concern and use the reporting tools available. What is clear is that we have a long way to go to recover the level of Policing that was in place in 2010. It is not just numbers but the need to train and gain experience. It was ironic to have Cllr Slocombe challenge Inspector Wells-Cole when she said on occasions she had to operate with a skeleton team of staff as it has been 13 years of Tory austerity which left the Police service on its knees. So yes, lets continue to work with the Police and Town Wardens to drive down the levels of crime which can make residents everyday lives quite miserable.”
Cllr Liz Marsh (Community PFH) commented “It was good to finally meet the current Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner, Mark Shelford but it was even better to hear that the need for improved Public Engagement and re-building Public Confidence is on the priority list because being brutally honest public faith in the Police Service is unbelievably low. However, I am still worried that the attempt by the PCC to constantly shift the blame onto local communities for not reporting incidents and crimes even though all those speaking readily admitted the 101-telephone line is close to being completely defunct and the other online option “Crimestoppers” is not helpful for those unable to either access the online option or are completely unaware of its existence in the first place.”
Cllr Marsh continued “Which brings me onto the next clear problem, that is communication or lack of it. The main concern from the majority of the Cllrs present is that the Police or PCSOs are just no longer in contact anymore, either in person or via reports with some even stating that years were passing without seeing or hearing anything. Now obviously the Government cuts can be blamed and as well they should but what to do before the next election. I don’t blame the Police or PCSOs themselves they are trying to deliver a good public service on a “skeleton staff” and where once they had one beat to look after now, they have six! Retention of staff within the Police is another massive area of concern and with their current conditions who can blame them for wanting to leave. Learning to Police in a classroom is hardly a solution either, rather than degrees perhaps on the job training might be a better solution actually out and about in our local Communities. It is, however, easy to criticise but as I say it’s not the Police’s fault, they clearly do still very much care and want to do their jobs. What they clearly need is the tools to do just that, what we all clearly need is a change a government! “
At the PCC meeting many councillors were from out of Town Parishes and were vocal about the lack of a Police presence where they lived, suggesting they were rarely visited. Cllr Smedley defended the Police position saying “In fact in the area we’re talking about there’s some 24 different parish councils which is a lot to try to get round-especially with limited resources. However, there’s an opportunity with the new County Unitary ‘Local Community Networks’. These will be a new arrangement which groups Parishes together and each LCN will have a dedicated Police presence on it, so this at least tackles that issue.”