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Monday, 14 October, 2002, 11:23 GMT 12:23 UK
Return of the 'guardian angels'

They've been called toothless, cut-price cops, and litter police; but street wardens are popping up all over our cities. Can they make a difference to one of the UK's toughest neighbourhoods?
For someone who has just been slapped with two penalty notices, shopkeeper Abdul Ghafoor appears to be in remarkably good humour.

Yet his broad smile betrays slight embarrassment, not surprising when you consider he is trading banter with the man who issued his 50 fines for fly-tipping.

Peckham street warden
Street wardens
  • Launched: First schemes started in Aug 01 (Peckham's began in Sept 02)
  • Numbers: More than 650 across England
  • Job: Tackle 'enviro-crime' eg: litter, graffiti, dog fouling and cut fear of crime
  • Funding: 25m through Neighbourhood Renewal Unit

  • Mr Ghafoor is one of a handful of shopkeepers in the London neighbourhood of Peckham to have fallen foul of its new weapon against lawlessness - street wardens.

    Since taking to the pavements a month ago, the nine wardens who patrol Peckham's centre have been doing their bit to better the area.

    Peckham has long been a public relations disaster zone, thanks initially to the antics of its two most famous denizens, TV's Del Boy and Rodney. But the brutal murder of schoolboy Damilola Taylor, two years ago, gave it a different edge.

    Suddenly the world woke up to what many locals already knew: this was a run-down, deprived and crime-blighted part of the capital, parts of it seething with social unrest.

    Peckham's 260m regeneration - of which the wardens scheme is the latest addition - was already underway at the time of the murder. It is the UK's biggest inner-city regeneration programme and great strides have been made.

    Guardian Angels
    Comparisons have been made with Guardian Angels
    But in the face of such desperate problems, what good can a few well-meaning wardens really do?

    The answer lies in the so-called "broken windows" approach to crime fighting - the belief that small, anti-social acts create a breeding ground for widespread disorder.

    The initiative is part of a nationwide scheme set up by John Prescott last year to tackle such scenarios. Critics have dismissed the wardens as toothless, cut-price cops, while some have compared them to the Guardian Angels - the vigilante force that started in New York in 1979.

    But councils up and down the country have got on board, and Peckham has gone further than most by giving its wardens the power to issue penalties for littering.

    Keeping a clean street

    Strolling down Rye Lane, Peckham's busy high street on a Wednesday afternoon, warden Ahmad Rafique is nearing the end of his daily patrol. Later, he will return to the office to file his daily report.

    "This is much better since we started. The street is cleaner, there is more order," he says, motioning to kerbstones where bags of commercial waste used to pile up.

    Ahmad Rafique and shopkeeper
    Ahmad says much of the job is about education
    Careless market traders and shopkeepers hoping to avoid paying for their rubbish collections were the most likely perpetrators.

    A former captain in the Pakistan army, with a service record in Kashmir, Ahmad knows all about discipline and rigour.

    "Before we started patrols, we visited all the shopkeepers in the area to tell them why we were here and what we were doing. We gave them warnings for fly-tipping but after two warnings we issue penalty notices."

    Lessons learned

    That's what happened to Mr Ghafoor. The Halal butcher blames his staff for not understanding the rules. But, with two penalty notices to his name, he gets a stern warning, in his native Urdu: if it happens again he'll find himself in court.

    Wearing a sheepish smile, Mr Ghafoor concedes he has learned his lesson.

    Street wardens in Hull
    England wide: Wardens at work in Hull
    It's a small victory for the law, but if you subscribe to the "zero tolerance" theory, this sort of low-level action will pay big rewards in future.

    "We are the eyes and the ears of Peckham," says Ahmad, explaining that the job is about fixing on the petty crimes that the police don't have time to deal with.

    Martin Bonehill, who runs an opticians in the high street and chairs the traders' group, welcomes the wardens.

    Low-key look

    "This place was a mess until a few weeks ago, with smelly, stinking rubbish around. It was turning people off," he says. "But people are beginning to see a difference. It's bringing new life in."

    Wardens are taking [care of] problems which in the past didn't directly 'belong' to anyone

    Government fact sheet
    Decked out in regulation black combat trousers, polo shirt and anorak, the wardens are striking yet less formal than the police.

    David Strevens, who runs the scheme, says the look was no accident.

    "Peckham is a very laid back town centre and a lot of people have difficulty relating to anyone in authority," he says. So, no hats, for example.

    But they are more than just glorified litter police. The hope is the wardens will give a reassuring presence to shoppers, and help to deter muggings, abusive behaviour, graffiti and other sorts of vandalism.

    Police links

    At rush hour they can be found at Peckham Rye station, scene of a recent spate of bag snatches, and in the mid-afternoon they keep watch as children turn out of Oliver Goldsmith School (where Damilola Taylor was a pupil).

    Damilola Taylor
    Damilola Taylor's death put the spotlight on Peckham
    Despite some initial scepticism from local police, there is now a good working relationship between the two, says Mr Stevens. Wardens have supplied them with intelligence reports on drugs, robbery and burglary suspects. In court, they can act as professional witnesses.

    So far, so good it seems. But, for the moment, the wardens are not a permanent presence. Targets have been set for the scheme, which is due to end in spring 2004.

    Maybe, by then, Peckham's name will be out of the mud. Failing that, perhaps it will conjure up nothing more damaging than the names "Del Boy" and "Rodney".

    See also:

    19 Sep 02 | UK
    29 Nov 00 | UK
    09 Oct 02 | England
    23 Sep 02 | England
    01 Sep 02 | England
    25 Apr 02 | England
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