Stansted is not San Salvador, despite what some social media pundits may think. With 80 crimes per 1,000 people in 2019, it was on a par with Bishop’s Stortford and higher than Saffron Walden’s rate of 71 per 1,000, although lower than the Essex average of 108.
However, public anxiety is rising in line with rising crime rates. The village saw recorded crime leap by 50 per cent between 2011 and 2019, according to statistics for Stansted published by UKCrimeStats. In the past year, reported crime has grown 3.7 per cent. Violent crime and shoplifting have risen markedly. Stansted is rapidly approaching the Essex average.
In contrast, over the border in Herts, Bishop’s Stortford’s reported crime rate in 2019 was 7.5 per cent lower than in 2011 and has remained at around the same level over the past three years.
The changing nature of crime is a cause of consternation among residents and local businesses. In 2019, violent crime grew by 30.2 per cent compared to the previous year and represented 30 per cent of total reported crime, overtaking anti-social behaviour as the biggest category of crime in the parish.
Shoplifting soared by 35.6 per cent, representing more than 9 per cent of crime. One local store manager told me that the outlet is being hit by theft of up to £1,200 per week. The scale of shoplifting cannot be linked to people in poverty stealing for their personal needs. This is industrial-scale looting by organised crime. Yet, shop CCTV disks remain uncollected by the police and police do not chase up crime reports for weeks.
On the upside, reports to police of anti-social behaviour declined 12.7 per cent and vehicle crime plunged 29.5 per cent – the factors behind these falls remain unexplained.
Commissioner Hirst’s Cop-Out
Essex Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner Roger Hirst has not demonstrated much interest in Stansted’s rising crime rate. It seems that the Commissioner’s office is suffering from the same “Walden-itis” as Uttlesford District Council – focusing on concentrating resources in the wealthiest town to the exclusion of the rest of the district.
The Commissioner has made just one visit to Stansted – attending a parish council meeting in September 2017 at which he answered a list of set questions – and has not staged a public meeting in the village. I wrote to his office in 2018 and 2019 asking for him to meet residents, but failed to get a positive response. Instead, he made another visit last month to low-crime Saffron Walden, hosting a public meeting for its residents.
Growing crime is the result of Mr Hirst’s political failure and the negligence of his party towards community safety.
Stansted is not unique in seeing a rise in crime in Essex; from 2011 to 2019, crime in the county grew 29 per cent with 4.6 per cent growth last year alone.
Rising crime is the result of political choices to cut neighbourhood policing. The county’s police force has been hammered by Tory austerity measures under Mr Hirst since 2016 as well as his predecessor Nick Alston, who shut down police stations like Stansted’s and served just one term before he quit.
Between 2010 and 2017, Essex Police cut one in six police officers – around 843 officers – to 2,724 full-time equivalent personnel, according to government figures. By last September, there had been a partial reverse of police cuts with an increase to 3,187 officers – still 380 below the level when Labour left power in 2010. During the decade of cuts, Essex’s population has grown. Uttlesford is one of the fastest growing areas of the county. We need to have police numbers above 2010 levels to have a meaningful and sustained impact on local crime.
Despite the recent rise in police numbers, it is unclear how many of the new police officers are coming our way. Last year, the police informed me through a Freedom of Information request that there would be an allocation of an additional nine staff for the Braintree and Uttlesford division, “managed in accordance with operational need.” They would join nine officers already specifically allocated to the division, split roughly equally between local policing teams and community policing teams. Based on shift rotation, this means an average of six police officers allocated to an area the size of London and a population the size of Swansea.
The county’s population has grown considerably over the past decade of austerity, during which time police stations – including the one in Cambridge Road in Stansted – have been permanently closed. Austerity has fuelled social problems that police end up dealing with, such as people in mental health crisis in a county that suffers huge cuts in mental health beds. Drug and alcohol addiction have also risen, causing greater strain on police resources. Internet-related crime, such as child grooming, has also grown far faster than the police teams needed to combat this menace.
PCSO: A good start, but not a panacea
To address the problem of rising crime, Stansted parish council is jointly funding a PCSO with Elsenham and Henham parish councils. The PCSO has been active in the community, for instance patrolling Birchanger Wood which has been used as cover for people firing missiles at car windscreens on the A120 – a problem that has sparked significant alarm in local social media. She is also using the new Mountfitchet Exchange community hub for a police desk, to build relations with the local community.
Having been appointed in October, it is too early to assess the impact of a local PCSO. No-one should think that this role is a panacea and expect crime rates to drop over night. Police operations are complex and PCSOs have a specific role within a the wider organisation of the police force.
PCSOs play a role within neighbourhood policing by being a visible and approachable police presence and helping to prevent trouble, deter crime and make communities safer. However, they are not warranted officers. They deal with minor crime and social nuisances, but we need far more intervention than PCSOs can provide in their role to deal with growing violent crime and organised shoplifting.
Parish councils should not, however, be footing the bill for increased policing to address the deficiencies caused by Commissioner Hirst. We are paying a bigger and bigger precept every year while crime rates soar. The Commissioner should not be allowed to cop out. Residents can make their opinions known at the Commissioner election in May.