LAWLESSNESS HAS COME TO GODZONE, APPARENTLY.
I say ‘apparently’ because the evidence for what follows is largely anecdotal: gossip, in other words, from the mouths of outraged country folk who are horrified that the Big City crimewave they see illustrated on their nightly TV news is now picking the pockets of the barely-policed parishes of far north Northumberland.
Ironically, I write this paean of pain as I travel to the capital by train to judge the British Journalism Awards. In broadcasting this story to public surveillance I commit the cardinal sin of journalism: that a story only ‘stands up’ when tested against at least two (three when I was trained) sources and should not be published until such back-up is obtained.
Nonetheless I publish in the sure and certain knowledge that the victims know who they are and will confirm the accuracy of the facts I have gleaned in bars and shops and village halls over the past week: the Cornhill Shop, Cafe and Post Office, for instance, half-a-mile from the River Tweed border with Scotland, which saw its shop window shattered when a midnight gang plundered its cigarette stock.
Listen to the testimony of shop owners Lynda Waite and Julie Jones, sisters admired in the community not just as hard-working young wives who run the best local shop in the district but also for their fund-raising efforts in aid of charities like Macmillan, for which they have so far raised £100,000:
“WE FEEL WE HAVE BEEN failed by the system. Contacting the police was our first problem: dial 999 from Cornhill and you are automatically put through to Police Scotland. Although helpful, patching us through to Northumbria meant another five minutes waiting whilst we could hear intruders trashing our premises next door.
“Once through to Northumbria Police, whose closest station is 15 miles from us, it took at least 25 minutes before they arrived on scene. The intruders were long gone!
“Following a garage robbery in Wooler some months ago we had made sure our CCTV system inside and outside the premises was one of the best, we are fully alarmed with a system which directly alerts the police, but even with all that and people living on the premises the thieves were not deterred.
“As far as we know, there is ONE policeman stationed in Wooler to cover the triangle from Cornhill to Rothbury to Amble. What chance do we stand?
“Police took statements and dusted for fingerprints the following day but we have neither seen nor heard from them since. No updates, no reassurance that they are doing their utmost to find those responsible people.
“Since then we know of seven more break-ins in three weeks, within a 15-mile radius, all similar: Friday night/Saturday morning, smash and grab, mainly for cigarettes and cash.”
Farm to Freeze in Wooler was another example: one of the best butchers in the county was ram-raided by villains using a vehicle stolen the same night from a local garage which also lost three quad bikes. Across the River Till, more crime: a copybook attack on a garage in Lowick was followed by a raid on the village store and a newly-opened micro-brewery was attacked, again for ready money.
It would be unfair to suggest that this explosion of local crime in a once-sleepy, untroubled area of the far north has occurred since the imposition of a police commissioner for Northumbria: Vera Baird gives the appearance of being a knowledgeable, hard-working elected representative who is doing her best in the battle against crime. Nonetheless, her £85,000 salary would go a long way to putting some more feet on the beat or a bobby or two on motorbikes.
Worryingly, one farmer from the Wooperton area swore to me he’d been told “by someone high up” that driving home from the pub “wouldn’t be that risky as long as you don’t go home ‘til after 10pm ‘cos there’s no one on duty after that”.
Huh! Some months ago my Red Lion drinking pals and I decided that we would no longer risk the two-pints-and-hope-we’re-under-the-limit gamble and now club together for a taxi on nights out. What’s the point? Why don’t we decide, like the criminals have, that no cops means no risk?
Some of the local shopkeepers, garage owners and gamekeepers who more and more frequently suffer at the hands of the moonlight marauders talk of “DIY security networks and taking matters into our own hands”. This is vigilantism and brings its own problems.
Lynda and Julie have their own suggestions.
“This huge area is just a sitting target. Could police presence not be increased? Why not put electronic trackers in dummy packs of cigarettes so the thieves can be traced?” Answers, please, on a postcard. Especially from those readers who claim to have clout.l
I’m going to break another Reporter’s Golden Rule now: I’m going to publish this column from my speeding, London-bound chariot without seeking comment from either the Police Commissioner or my MP, Anne-Marie Trevelyan. Call it a polemic, a one-sided rant, not a news report.
I offer the right of reply in the same space — or more — on this website to either or both of them to explain what is going on.
Or, better yet, to reassure me that I have it all wrong. But I won’t hold my breath.