Crime in Britain: The 'nice' town plagued by theft: Cheltenham faces a soaring burglary rate, Terry Kirby reports

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The Independent Online
DETECTIVE CONSTABLE Paul Slater waves at the terrace of cottages in the picture-book village of Prestbury, on the fringes of Cheltenham: 'Four or five of them all got screwed one night a while back; people didn't lock their doors.'

It was only a couple of years ago that locals thought about locks, he said; but then, Cheltenham, famed for its Regency splendour and the Ladies' College, did not need a burglary squad.

Minutes later, back in town, DC Slater and the head of the squad, acting Detective Sergeant Barbara Harrison, patrol an inner-city landscape of abandoned cars and boarded-up windows.

'People simply don't expect to see these sort of areas in Cheltenham, but it's where most of our customers live,' DS Harrison said. It is the very proximity of these run-down estates to the more prosperous areas that provide easy pickings.

The squad targets a hard-core of no more than 30. 'We normally get busy around 5pm or 6pm when people come home from work and discover they have been done. You get to know their methods; you can often tell very quickly just by looking around who's responsible,' DS Harrison said.

In the squad's office, a list of recent arrests shows the same names occurring two, three or four times within a few weeks.

It may just be that those few residents of these few streets are responsible for giving Cheltenham the worst record of burglaries in Gloucestershire, which has already seen some of the most spectacular rises in crime statistics in the country.

Last year in Cheltenham, house burglaries rose to 2,593 from 1,521, an increase of 71 per cent; thefts from cars rose by 84 per cent and of cars by 45 per cent. These categories accounted for the bulk of crimes in the town and at least half the overall increase.

The figures contribute to the county-wide picture, where offences increased by 21 per cent in 1990 and 32 per cent in 1991. From a fall in 1989, house burglaries rose by 22 per cent and 33 per cent, car-related crimes by similar proportions. As Labour recently pointed out with some glee, Conservative-controlled Gloucestershire has seen a 444 per cent rise in house burglaries since 1979, the second-worst increase in the country.

John Horan, a 40-year-old middle manager, is a typical resident of the prosperous Leckhampton area and has had first-hand experience of the increase in crime in Cheltenham. After living untouched by crime in the town for 21 years, he suffered his first house burglary in 1985, last year the thefts of two bicycles and this year, a theft from his car, parked outside his house. The incidents have a special irony: he is also the recently appointed head of the town's police.

Although Superintendent Horan reluctantly accepts that rising crime inevitably affects quality of life and heightens public concern, he sees no panic in the streets. 'If you go to Harrogate, Leamington or Bath you will probably find a similar story. It's property crime: your car is at risk everywhere in the city. Although there is considerable fear of crime on the streets - which we have to reduce - there is a drop in the number of serious assaults. People still come here because it's a nice place to live.'

Cheltenham is not the only place where the question of why the crime rate is rocketing is being asked. Partly, the answers are social factors - a more populated, mobile and car-owning culture, the close proximity of rich and poor, the requirement of insurance companies for thefts to be reported before they will pay out and the recession.

If, as Mr Horan asserts, Cheltenham has traditionally had a 'hard core' responsible for most property crime, are they now committing so many more offences than before? 'Largely, yes. These are offences they might have committed before but did not because either they were not granted bail or were given custodial sentences. Now courts grant bail more often and they reoffend.'

Police argue that the cumulative effects of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, which harnessed interrogation and detention, the Bail Act, leading to greater use of bail, and the Criminal Justice Act, which reduced the use of prison for lesser offences, are now being demonstrated.

Mr Horan added: 'Please stress that we know who they are and that we carry on arresting them.'

(Photographs omitted)