Out on the streets, drugs span the divide in a city of rich and poor

By Abrad · Jun 24, 2006 ·
  1. Abrad
    WEALTH and deprivation live side by side in Bristol, home to the headquarters of 160 companies and Britain’s largest financial centre outside London.

    Affluent suburbs such as Clifton, where Tony Blair delivered his speech yesterday, are flanked by estates ranked among the worst in social deprivation, unemployment, health and education.

    “It is a city of huge contrasts,” Acting Chief Superintendent Kay Wozniak says. But one problem does span the two worlds — drugs, the biggest single challenge facing Mrs Wozniak and her 930 officers.

    There are 8,000 “problematic” addicts in Bristol and an estimated 25,000 other recreational and social users. Drugs affect every level of society in the city, from those whose cars are broken into to feed a habit to the people who find themselves living next to a crack house.

    Despite the publicity surrounding new drugs such as crystal meth and old favourites such as cocaine, it is heroin that is by far the biggest problem in Bristol.

    Mrs Wozniak can reel off the list of her officers’ successes: the closing of 42 crack houses, the arrest of 1,537 people for drug-related crimes since 2001 and the purge of dealers and drug dens in the suburbs of St Paul’s and Easton.

    However, the statistics on the force’s website still curve inexorably upwards, and 80 per cent of all crime in the area can be attributed, directly or indirectly, to drug addiction.

    Huge reductions in some crimes — homicides dropped from ten in 2004-05 to two in 2005-06 and domestic burglaries dropped 361 to 4,324 — sit beside huge increases in others: there are more assaults now and thefts from motor vehicles have risen nearly 10 per cent since 2004.

    No one in Bristol knows the high price of the drugs problem better than the residents of Knowle West, a sprawling housing estate in the south of the city that is home to 20,000 people. It was once claimed that it was easier to buy a bag of heroin there than a bag of sugar and that children as young as ten were injecting themselves openly in the streets.

    The estate was one of six areas in Britain Mr Blair targeted five years ago in his campaign to help to drag deprived areas out of the cycle of poverty and crime. Since then initiatives have been launched and abandoned but some lasting success remain.

    The Knowle West Media Centre has involved hundreds of youngsters in enterprises from film-making and photography to publishing a community newsletter. The centre’s £150,000 annual grant ends this year but managers hope that they will make up the shortfall with commercial projects and have said that they will press ahead with plans to replace the current crumbling offices with a new building.

    The centre’s users resent the portrayal of the estate as a hotbed of crime, despite the recent stabbing murder there of a father of three on his own doorstep.

    Davina Froom, 17, said: “I’ve lived here all my life and that’s the only really bad thing that’s happened.”

    Chad Downes, 15, who hopes to become a graphic designer on the strength of his work at the media centre, said: “It isn’t that bad. My granddad even leaves his back door wide open.” Senior Inspector Jeff Foreman, who helps to patrol the estate, said: “I love it here, there’s a real sense of community and an energy you don’t find elsewhere.”

    The police work closely with the local community, and crimes on the estate have fallen significantly since 2001. Yesterday the only crime being openly committed was that against good taste — the occupants of a house had bedecked it from top to bottom with dozens of England flags.

    Mrs Wozniack said that tackling the high-profile crimes alone would not make Bristol a better place to live. The police have supported initiatives from putting taxi marshals in the city centre to handing out lollipops to the drinkers who pour out of Bristol’s 1,000 licensed premises in the early hours of the morning.

    Mrs Wozniak said: “We want people to be safe and to feel safe and that means tackling the ‘background noise’ of low- level crime and antisocial behaviour.”

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