in Community Safety

Neighbourhood Watch and Big Society

A bit of lazy blogging. But going through various bits and pieces from last week it occurred to me that I didn’t post my speech from the Neighbourhood Watch conference I referred to in Tweeting not twitching in Wandsworth.

I don’t often write speeches – which probably shows through in my performances in the council chamber – but was pressured to put a bit more preparation into this! And having done it, I’ll be damned if my words of wisdom won’t be available for all on the internet (with the usual “check against delivery” caveat):

Hello and welcome everyone to the Battersea Park Pump House for this afternoon’s conference on the Big Society and Neighbourhood Watch.

I would like to start by thanking Wandsworth Community Safety Trust for funding this afternoon and to the Wandsworth Community Safety Team for organising it.

I’m particularly excited by this afternoon’s programme because I have long believed that Neighbourhood Watch can be the leading example of the Big Society, and, here in Wandsworth, our work has been proving just that.

However, while we can throw any number of buzz-words at Neighbourhood Watch: whether we think it’s the Big Society, an example of nudge, traditional community empowerment – and I think there are plenty of examples to illustrate each concept and far more besides – the key thing about Neighbourhood Watch is that it just works.

To give a brief history of Neighbourhood Watch in Wandsworth we have long done it a bit differently. Unlike most other areas, where the police are responsible for the Watches in their patch the council has taken responsibility for the development and maintenance of Neighbourhood Watch since 1994, meaning that for 17 years the focus has, arguably, been more on the Neighbourhood than on the Watch – and the council is incredibly proud of that.

Over the past few decades Wandsworth has developed one of the country’s largest networks of Neighbourhood Watches and in recent years has consistently been inner London’s safest borough: two facts that are, I think, related.

However, I would hope that we are now at a stage when, in practical terms, it does not matter who is ‘responsible’ for Neighbourhood Watch, but instead on how everyone who is interested in community safety – whether resident, business or public sector – are able to work together towards a common aim of making our neighbourhoods better places to live.

I started by saying that I thought Neighbourhood Watch was the leading example of the Big Society. I could perhaps more accurately have said that I think Big Society is a leading benefit of Neighbourhood Watch.

At the beginning of Neighbourhood Watch week the minister commented on the need to move Neighbourhood Watch away from the traditional curtain-twitching stereotype, and I’m pleased that we had ditched that many years ago. And by the time we were consulting on our current strategy in 2008 it was clear that residents had long since ditched that stereotype too.

In Wandsworth Neighbourhood Watch wasn’t just about keeping an eye out on your road and talking to the police.

It had become about being an active neighbour and an active community.

It had become about building networks and communication between everyone with a stake in the area.

And it had become about building the borough’s resilience in the face of natural or man-made disaster.

The council has endeavoured to help develop that. So, to give some examples:

We help people become active neighbours by giving them training on problems to look out for and the tools to deal with it. One of the scourges of our time are rogue traders, who prey on the elderly and vulnerable: here we establish no-cold call zones in the worst affected areas and offer training to co-ordinators and others on what to look out for and who to contact if they see anything suspicious.

We have been helping them build networks and communicate by engaging on local community websites and developing our own tools to alert people. But also by giving them information to disseminate both electronically and, because not everyone is on the internet, on paper. And those networks go on to do more. Wandsworth was high in the London league table for royal wedding street parties, and it’s no coincidence that most were in roads with well-established Neighbourhood Watches.

And we’ve been working with partners to ensure residents can help themselves if the worst comes to the worst. The NHS have offered all our co-ordinators training on how they could help during a flu pandemic and the fire service offer regular training on dealing with flooding. No-one expects Neighbourhood Watch to replace emergency services, but by removing some of the low level pressure it allows professionals to prioritise their resources more effectively.

In each case, Neighbourhood Watch is not replacing the role of public and emergency services, but instead enhancing them: by equipping residents to play their own role in protecting themselves and each other, rather than just relying on the state, usually with a flashing blue light, to come to their rescue.

But where do we go from here?

When the council took on responsibility for Neighbourhood Watch I imagine no-one foresaw the development that would take place, I’m certain no-one would have imagined it would have any place in resilience planning!

Here in Wandsworth we have a clear vision. We want to extend and share the advantages of Neighbourhood Watch with more people in a way that is relevant and useful to them.

So while we recognise the huge benefits Neighbourhood Watch can bring, we equally recognise that those benefits are not shared across the whole borough.

People who live in purpose-built flats, whether social or private, are less likely to be part of a Watch than people living in a house. And consequently large social or private estates are unlikely to have any coverage at all.

Similarly, businesses are usually either excluded or given their own business watch scheme. Yet don’t we all live in neighbourhoods that include social housing and businesses?

To attempt to address this, we are currently piloting a system of ‘Total Neighbourhood Watch’, in which everyone is included, resident, business, school or church: if they are in the area they can be part of the Watch. And instead of being discrete units, we are joining them up, so they know the key people in the scheme in the next road, enabling them to share intelligence, tips, or even just a drink!

And to ensure Neighbourhood Watch is relevant, we also recognise that we cannot impose a system or a structure from above. The system needs to be meaningful to the people who are going to benefit from it, which means we should be flexible in the offer we make. In Wandsworth, that even means we will create Watches that don’t cover a specific geographical area – our first was for users of a day-centre, which allows us to work with them in a way that is specific to their needs and concerns.

But to finish I’d like to return to the realm of resilience planning from where I think we can draw some general principles.

A few years ago the think-tank Demos published ‘Resilient Nation’ in which they argued that resilience planning should involve the public with four Es: engagement, education, empowerment and encouragement.

I want to appropriate them for Neighbourhood Watch.

Engagement is crucial, and this must work in every direction. We cannot expect co-ordinators to engage with us unless we can demonstrate we are engaged with them: responding to their concerns and requests or at the very least explaining why not when we can’t.

Education must be an ongoing process. While we had hundreds of people trained by the NHS when a flu pandemic was last predicted memories fade and must be refreshed. We must always make sure that they are prepared for what might happen tomorrow, not what happened yesterday.

Empowerment is critical, and people need to know they are empowered. I’m sure everyone in this room has heard the urban legend about the dangers of being sued if you clear snow and ice from the pavement and someone then slips. In Wandsworth we didn’t just tell people that wasn’t true, we actually gave Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinators supplies of salt and grit for their streets, symbolically sharing in the risk – even if that risk was a myth.

And finally, encouragement. It is no good expecting people to just do this in a vacuum. We need to encourage them, whether it’s simply by demonstrating that we are equal partners with the support we offer and the way we communicate, by helping them share their best practice amongst themselves or even by celebrating their successes through awards recognising their achievements.

Neighbourhood Watch represents the best of enthusiastic, energetic and committed neighbourhoods. By applying the principles and creating an engaged, educated, empowered and encouraged partnership Neighbourhood Watch won’t just be the foundation or building blocks of the Big Society, but the very heart of the Big Society.

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