Nottingham still menaced by its modern-day outlaws

When Robin Hood and his merry men were rampaging across Sherwood Forest the very least the Sheriff of Nottingham was able to do was dispatch a party of bowmen to sort them out. Today, all his modern-day equivalent can do is send out a squad car a couple of days later to give the victim their crime report number.

Crime numbers are something you hear a lot about in Nottinghamshire at the moment - crimes solved, or more likely crimes unsolved. According to a damning report on Nottinghamshire Police by David Blakey, an inspector of constabulary, the level of crime in the county, when compared with the population, was so high that "if you lived, worked in or visited Notts, you are more likely to have a crime committed against you than anywhere else in the country". Although the force reacted with horror, pointing out that matters had improved drastically since the time the report was completed a year ago, The Independent's own, entirely unscientific survey yesterday suggested that Mr Blakey was spot on.

In the slightly down-at-heel area of Netherfield, which occupies a socio-economic zone somewhere between suburbia and the inner cities, all but one of half a dozen local people spoken to had some direct personal experience of crime. Not, perhaps, the most serious of offences, but the kind of crime that affects people's quality of life much more than a bullion robbery.

Contemplating the two boarded-up windows disfiguring her otherwise pristine shopfront yesterday was Helen Lancaster, proprietor of a tanning shop: "Someone, a group of kids or a bloke depending on who you talk to, tried to smash one window, found it didn't break completely and so they had a go at the other one. The brick went straight through. Of course the police came round to give me my crime number, so I can claim it on the insurance, but that's all they can do,'' she said.

Next door, Anita Bentley points out the shotgun pellet hole in the window of her shop and then says that her mobile phone was taken from her car, parked in the car park just opposite the other day. Neither offence prompted anything more from the police than, of course, the inevitable crime number.

"You never see a police officer round here. I wouldn't know if we had a local beat bobby. You just see them driving past in their cars sometimes,'' she said.

At the Co-op supermarket across the road, where the security cameras don't work, the staff are plagued by shoplifters, while Paul Morton, owner of Paul's Florists, says the police usually turn up two days after his latest report of flowers being taken from his displays on the roadside. "They come to give me my crime number.'' Apparently, according to Miss Lancaster's father, Kenneth, all 34 windows in the local Jobcentre were smashed recently.

Mr Blakey's assessment, that the force was not working effectively or efficiently, that police attendance at the scenes of crime was slow and internal communication inadequate, seemed almost self-evident among those who spoke to The Independent.

All this anecdotal evidence has to be measured against the assertion from the force that it has worked hard to bring down crime levels, revamped its management structure and introduced and enforced performance targets. Crime has fallen from an average 16.9 per cent increase in the 12 months ending last April to a decrease of 5.4 per cent in the 12 months ending April this year.

Superintendent Nick Holmes, of the force's south Nottinghamshire division, admits that it has suffered from a lack of forward thinking, poor IT and a shortage of manpower compared with the population. "Twelve months ago when the report came out my officers were beleaguered. Their individual caseloads were higher than any other officers in comparable forces and we were not pleasing the public," he said.

It has, he said, been like turning round a juggernaut, but cites a series of decreases in crime, particularly in places such as Eastwood, formerly known as Brown Town because of its heroin problem.

The Independent continued its survey in the tranquil village of Cropwell Bishop, deep in the Nottinghamshire countryside and a name known to all lovers of Stilton cheese, still made in the village.

In the village shop, the manager, David Lock, is still clearing up the blood and glass from yesterday's break-in. "Apparently they stole a car and were just cruising round robbing shops. We came in here in the morning, found this bloke in my office. I locked him in and called the police but he'd broken through the window and the door and walked out of the shop by the time they arrived.'' Perhaps he should have asked the Sheriff of Nottingham.