How vandalism, theft and abuse are devastating one blighted community

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Vandalism, swearing, drunkenness and intimidation from a teenage gang turned a row of community shops in a Sheffield suburb into a focus for antisocial behaviour.

Vandalism, swearing, drunkenness and intimidation from a teenage gang turned a row of community shops in a Sheffield suburb into a focus for antisocial behaviour.

It is a miserable transformation to which thousands of people across the country have become resigned - and which the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, wants to reverse through his five-year plan.

Residents of Margetson Crescent, Parson Cross, Sheffield have been plagued by daily episodes of verbal abuse and theft for the past three years. They were so concerned about the situation that they invited Mr Blunkett, MP for neighbouring Sheffield Brightside, to attend an emergency meeting with parents, residents and councillors in May.

The mob of youngsters terrorised residents, swore and spat at passers-by and shoplifted. They regularly vandalised cash-machines and telephone booths, set cars alight and tore down a protective wall at the local GPs surgery. At night, they would break into garages where they drank alcohol and smoked cannabis.

Community Support Officers (CSOs) were brought into the area and 24 Acceptable Behaviour Contracts, a pre-emptive police device used before court action is triggered, were issued to the culprits, which resulted in lower levels of street crime and intimidation.

Norma Ashmore, secretary of Margetson Tenants and Residents Association, welcomed the Government's efforts yesterday: "We had youths congregating on the shopping parade, who would vandalise and graffiti the area," she said. "The phone-box was blown up in the lead-up to Bonfire Night last year.

"They intimidated the shoppers and the shopkeepers to the point where some of the businessmen were closing their shops shortly before the end of the school day, and one or two even spoke of not renewing their leases.

Tenants who lived above the shops said it was a nightmare with them at night, smoking and drinking."

The CSOs proved to be an effective deterrent to crime but they were then redeployed to patrol a wider area which has brought some negative elements back to the precinct.

Ms Ashmore welcomed Mr Blunkett's proposal to quadruple the number of civilian police wardens to 20,000, but added that the root cause of social deprivation must also be confronted: "The problem of congregating youths grew over three years because there is nothing for young people to do in the area. There is one youth club here which is only open one day a week," she said.

"We don't want youths locked up for spitting and swearing ... I would welcome more community support officers who do not just chastise youngsters but play football with them and gain their trust and confidence," she added.

She remained unconvinced about extra powers given to the local community by Mr Blunkett to force the police to act against street crime:

"We get lots and lots of complaints but people do not want to name names, so there is not a lot the police can do about that. It is all right for Mr Blunkett and Tony Blair to empower communities but the community members themselves needs to be responsible and to report the incidents."

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