The problem is Wapping is not a problem

At a packed and often heated meeting the residents of Wapping & Shadwell forcefully expressed their views on crime in the area at a public meeting at St. George’s Town Hall on Tuesday evening called in reaction to the Wapping Woods assaults.

Sijil Miah, a 32 year old male of Shadwell E1, appeared at Thames Magistrates’ Court on 3rd January 2013 charged with two counts of attempted murder and two counts of possession of a knife in a public place relating to incidents on 4 December 2012 against a 38-year-old woman and on 29 December 2012 on a 26 year-old woman. He was remanded in custody.

Over 130 people attended the meeting but how many residents left reassured is open to question.

After a brief introduction by the numerous members of the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) and Tower Hamlets Council who were present, Chief Superintendent Stringer, Tower Hamlets Borough Commander, outlined how local policing works and some of the changes that should happen next year. This includes an extra 2,000 police officers on the streets of London.

Boisterous, loud and dominated by a few

Inspector Steve Cook of the Safer Neighbourhood team drew the short straw and attempted to control the meeting but even his patience must have been worn thing as residents continually spoke over each other and interrupted.

Residents pack into St. George's. Photo: Vickie Flores
Residents pack into St. George’s. Photo: Vickie Flores

Good manners seemed to be absent for the evening.

One of the first points the MPS officers mentioned was that they would like to see more people at the Ward Panels they run. Six people turned up to the last one. The next will be at St. George’s at 6pm on 6th February. All welcome.

I will not attempt to give a verbatim account of the meeting but will report a few highpoints. Excluding the moment one member of the audience threatened to punch another…

From the start some people had issues with the way the meeting was being run.

“Whose agenda is it?” asked the woman sitting behind me. Insp. Cook followed a format of three questions then a response, but many did not get a chance to express their views and others spoke several times.

It might have been a better idea for one of the local councillors present to act as chair rather than relying on Insp. Cook to both chair the meeting and answer questions.

Lots of questions, but were people happy with the answers?

Some comments from residents:

“We want to know what you are doing now, not next year.”

“We don’t see councillors until there is a local election on.”

“Why is it obvious to us that the bushes [in Wapping Woods] need trimming and we need better lighting and not obvious to you?”

“There are gangs of youths in every green space in Wapping, drinking, smashing bottles.”

“Not everyone uses the Internet so cant check police websites for information”

“There are junkies, peeping toms, people having sex in Wapping Woods and what happens when you ring up? Nothing!”

“We need to make Wapping Woods more family friendly.”

“This problem is not just about Wapping Woods, it is all of Wapping.”

“If citizens can’t patrol the area can covert police do it?”

The MPS and Tower Hamlets representatives present robustly defended their response to reported crime.

What were you wearing? Sunglasses?

Obviously a continuous issue being discussed (shouted?) was the lighting in Wapping Woods.

Chief Superintendent Stringer said that he had walked through the woods last night in plain clothes and he did not think the lighting was that bad.

“What were you wearing? Sunglasses?” was the response from the back.

And it has to be said that probably safest time to walk through Wapping Woods at night is now when it has been swamped by police officers and been all over the TV and newspapers.

The same walk on a warm evening might be a better test. Without half the Army at Tobacco Dock of course.

Surprised and disappointed

I was pleasantly surprised by the large number of people who made the effort to attend the meeting and disappointed by the behavior of some.

If this had been a Save KEMP meeting and we were intent on giving The Fascists in Suits (aka Thames Water) a good verbal kicking then fine, that’s what The Suits are for, but I think the MPS officers present were given a hard time.

In the frontline - Inspector Steve Cook answers questions. Photo: Vickie Flores
In the front line – PC Kevin Scripps answers questions. Photo: Vickie Flores

Possibly the most perceptive statement was made by a woman sitting at the back. “Wapping has been ignored”

It’s not rocket science

And maybe that is it. It is just that simple.

The problem is Wapping is not seen as a problem.

And because it is not seen as a problem area by the MPS or Tower Hamlets or anyone else with the power to get things done it is ignored.

Let’s consider a simple fact. 130 people attended a meeting after two women had been seriously assaulted.  So we are all reacting after a problem has caused harm. Not before.  And by ‘we’ I mean the MPS, Tower Hamlets, our elected representatives and everyone who lives in Wapping. We are all responsible.

Scum bag hostile

If the environment in Wapping Woods was designed to be friendly to honest hard working residents and hostile to any scum bags drifting around the assaults might not have happened.

Yes this type of serious assault is very rare in Wapping. The point is that what has happened in Wapping Woods last month could happen anywhere else in Wapping.

Green spaces in particular seem to be attractive to groups of men who for some reason don’t understand the concept of a pub and so drink in our parks and public gardens, intimidate people and leave the area covered in smashed glass and rubbish.

If this tolerated then other more vicious elements will gather in the same place.

When the issue of drinking in green spaces was raised at the meeting part of the response by a member of Tower Hamlets was this:

“Help us identify areas where this happens.”

My head was in my hands at this point.

Excuse me? What bit of ‘Go and look at any green space in Wapping’ do these people not understand?

Does anyone have a map of Wapping & Shadwell?

The problem we have is in Wapping Woods. And in Shadwell Basin. And in West Gardens. And in Hermitage. And in Wapping New Stairs. And along the canal. And in Pennington Street. And everywhere else it seems. Does that help ‘identify problem areas’?

Mind the gap

On a personal level I left the meeting feeling that there was a huge gap between the views of those who live in Wapping and those who are responsible for law and order. Not just the MPS. Everyone.

Not only were we not all on the same page, I think we were reading different books.

I find this very worrying indeed. Maybe it’s just me though.

Yes we might get some extra MPS patrols for a while but I don’t think that will last for long. As was pointed out the police have to respond to immediate criminal acts as a priority. That’s just the way it is.

And yes we might get some extra CCTV cameras. But, as someone else pointed out, these are only of use after the event. Tower Hamlets might have “an excellent CCTV system that is the envy of other boroughs” but so what? The UK is littered with CCTV cameras. Their main purpose seems to serve as a comfort blanket, to provide the illusion of safety and security but little else.

The physical environment of all of Wapping needs to be improved. Better lighting, better maintenance of problem areas, zero tolerance of low level issues such as groups of drinkers.

We all need to report crime. Don’t think that someone else will do it. If you can’t be bothered why should someone else be?

Reclaim Wapping, not just the woods

Wapping is a fantastic place to work, live and visit. And we need to make sure we keep it that way.

Maybe one simple test will be to see how many people turn up to the next local policing Ward Panel. Will it be six people? Or 130?

Excellent report by East London Lines on the meeting here.

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