Page last updated at 01:57 GMT, Wednesday, 8 February 2006

Decline of the enforcers?

By Trevor Timpson
BBC News, in Northampton

In a week-long series on respect in one English town, the BBC News website looks at those traditionally on the frontline in maintaining respect.

Racecourse Park, Northampton
Northampton's parks are good, but rangers can face risks

When the head of the Metropolitan Police warned recently of the rise of anti-social behaviour, he pinpointed three jobs in particular.

The church was declining in influence and "agents of social enforcement" such as park keepers and bus conductors had disappeared, Sir Ian Blair said.

The park ranger, church official and bus company boss in Northampton we spoke to talked less about "social enforcement" - and more about involvement and respect.

ATTACKED ON THE BOWLING GREEN

Park ranger Peter Gancarcik says he was chased by the park keeper as a child in Northampton when he was playing football in the wrong place.

"If he cycled in - you ran away."

Peter's colleague Jim Brennan says the "parkie" in the Waterworks Park in Belfast used to carry a blackthorn stick, and people were frightened of him whether they were doing wrong or not.

"I wouldn't want that," says Peter. "You shouldn't be afraid of people."

In any case, if the park rangers of today ask some people to move their game of football off the bowling green, "they tell you to sling your hook".

Peter Gancarcik and Jim Brennan
A rewarding job: rangers Peter Gancarcik (L) and Jim Brennan

Or worse.

Northampton is polite and well-looked after, and compared with some other towns its parks are, well, like parks used to be.

But the rangers' tales are hair-raising.

Jim Brennan recalls how he was taken to hospital after intervening in a confrontation between youths and bowlers on one of the greens at Abington Park.

He was punched and kicked and off work for two weeks - and remembers wryly that his attacker was fined 50 with some community service.

Peter Gancarcik tells how he was almost caught in an ambush when visiting the park at Delapre Abbey.

A bough had been dragged across the road leading out of the park. As he drove round it someone stepped out and fired a pistol of some sort at the van - police were alerted but never appeared.

Sir Ian Blair says more people are turning to the police for "answers to the degradation of communal life".

But to the rangers of Northampton the police may not be the answer. When an incident is reported, says Mr Brennan, "they give you a reference number, and on occasion will turn up".

Northants Police say they have a strict graded response system to deal with the thousands of calls they get every day.

Mr Brennan and Mr Gancarcik are among six wardens - there used to be 15 - charged with patrolling all the town's many parks up to 9.30pm.

Sir Ian Blair
Anti-social behaviour is also threatening our ability to lead free lives
Sir Ian Blair

They can sometimes manage foot patrols - but when holidays and sickness take their toll a ranger may be patrolling on his own in the 4x4 - and that, says Mr Gancarcik, can be "a bit iffy".

For a time they had powers under an "accredited person" scheme to impose on-the-spot fines for littering and dog-fouling and confiscate alcohol and cigarettes from children, but that has been shelved.

But they say their presence in the parks does reassure people, and the job is rewarding - dealing with anti-social behaviour is only part of their work, Mr Brennan points out.

Tony Ansell of the Friends of Abington Park says things have improved greatly in the town's premier park in recent years, despite the decline in ranger numbers. Close-circuit TV has played a key role after 15 years of campaigning, he says.

Mr Ansell, who runs the tea rooms in the park, says a few years ago "I was set to throw the keys back at the council - I'd had enough because of yobbo behaviour".

Now he has invested heavily in refurbishing the facilities there.

RESPECT ON WHEELS

The managing director of one of Northampton's two main bus firms started out as a conductor 31 years ago - and says that was the best job he ever had.

"It taught me how easy it is to influence the behaviour of others by our own behaviour," says James Freeman of Stagecoach East.

Take over a bus in a bad mood, and it would take for ever to collect the fares; a cheery hello, and the passengers were on your side, he says.

James Freeman
It's easy to influence others by your own conduct, James Freeman found

Mr Freeman tells this to drivers when they join the firm, and urges respect between them and passengers, and between managers and staff.

In his early days there was a sense that passengers were a "nuisance that had to be dealt with", he says.

Now he believes in getting recruits to feel more confident in dealing with people, and showing that "if you have respect for others, that's half-way to meeting their need". All the same, he knows, "one nasty passenger can ruin your day".

He accepts that in Northampton, the problems are fewer than elsewhere - it is one of those towns where people say "Thanks, driver" when they get off the bus.

Though vehicles are sometimes vandalised, person-to-person violence on the buses is rare. There is a serious problem, though, with people throwing bricks at buses.

"We lose several windows a week," says Mr Freeman.

"The vast bulk of passengers are still fairly respectful, but not always of each other," he says - some people talk too loud, and "the interaction of schoolchildren and passengers is a serious issue for us".

With conductors gone, the role of deciding what to do about incidents passes to the drivers - and, says Mr Freeman, they are advised not to leave their seats.

Northampton's Greyfriars bus station
Damage to Northampton buses is a problem, but violence is rare

So how should they control an incident?

Stopping the bus is the start of dealing with something, he says: "Nearly always the person causing it will get off because they feel trapped."

There are very few buses in Northampton in the evenings - a situation which he wants to change. His last post was in Oxford where buses run until 3am.

There is a "tremendous" night-time economy in Northampton, with thousands of clubbers in the town centre after midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, and Mr Freeman believes buses have a role in getting them home quickly and efficiency with fewer fights in taxi queues.

This will involve CCTV on the buses, not used in Northampton up to now, he says - and extra personnel, but he thinks they should be at the boarding point rather than on the buses.

FAITH IN THE COMMUNITY

One theme kept coming up during the visit - that places and people are caught up by anti-social behaviour when they are abandoned or neglected - and when they are looked after, they do better.

Park ranger Jim Brennan spoke with enthusiasm of schemes to get local communities involved in the town's smaller parks, especially among the young.

Tea room operator Tony Ansell points to community involvement in Abington Park - people respect it more. Children are involved in projects, and more likely to feel it is their own park, he adds.

The Reverend David Wiseman
Challenge behaviour but show love and concern, says David Wiseman

For Stagecoach's Mr Freeman, "The most threatening buses are empty ones."

The Reverend David Wiseman says involvement and "oneanotherness" are at the heart of the respect question - and he doubts if the prime minister has got it right with his "respect agenda".

Northampton-based, he is social responsibility adviser for the Church of England's Peterborough diocese. Speaking on his own behalf, he told BBC News: "We should try to re-grasp respect for community vision."

He says society should move away from the "me and my family vision" which he feels came in with former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Church attendance has not been the key to the church's influence, especially not in towns, he says.

Nor were the clergy "given" authority because of who they were - they had to earn it through involvement "and I value that," he adds, drawing on his 25 years as an inner city priest in the Black Country and north Manchester.

"Where a church is active in the community its influence is quite significant," he insists.

The heart of the Christian faith is showing people that they have value
Rev David Wiseman

Sometimes, he admits, "the Church is struggling to do that", but he says proudly that though Church attenders make up 8% of the population, they account for 30% of activists in community organisations.

Anti-social behaviour, he says, is not just playing loud music all night - it is also people "shutting their doors on the environment around them" and not supporting local shops and schools.

"I'm appalled," says Mr Wiseman, "that the government does not express anti-social behaviour in these terms."

A lot of young people do not have much self-worth, he says, and he calls for people to show love and concern to them "in a positive way".

"It will involve challenging people's behaviour - but the heart of the Christian faith is showing people that they have value."

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