A few days ago I took a train to Birmingham to meet the residents of "our" Downing Street, in Halesowen. In a nondescript modern pub I met 15 or so of the men and women who contribute their opinions to our pages each week, and had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. But the most fascinating fact to emerge from the occasion did not relate to the prospect of redundancies in the car industry or voting intentions in the forthcoming local elections. Quite simply, many of the people sitting down to steak and chips at the long table in the middle of Benjamin's restaurant and bar had never met each other before.
Of course, after a few drinks the ice was broken and when I left people were chatting away amicably. Downing Street may be a small suburban cul- de-sac of 30 semi-detached houses, but I witnessed groups of people who might live only 50 yards apart talking to each other for the first time. All over Britain today, people will be sitting reading their Sunday newspapers and then washing their cars or taking the dog for a walk, perhaps only nodding hello to their immediate next-door neighbours. Downing Street is so typical of streets and villages all over the country. On the way back to London I realised that I know only one person in my street in London to say hello to.
Much hysterical press followed the jailing of farmer Tony Martin for killing a burglar. A lot of people opined that it was acceptable to shoot at intruders, and the right to defend one's property should outweigh the law of the land. But there is a more obvious lesson. Yes, Tony Martin was an eccentric recluse, but that doesn't justify murder. The best way to prevent rural crime is to re-engender a sense of community and shared values - people visiting each other and talking. And I don't mean the Neighbourhood Watch Scheme of sticking a sign in your window or at the end of the drive.
In Yorkshire, where I've had a cottage for more than 10 years, it's all a bit different. In my parish of Upper Nidderdale, an area easily as remote as Tony Martin's Norfolk, rural crime is actually on the decline. The little police house in a neighbouring village has been sold, and the nearest police station is eight miles away. There, eight policemen and one sergeant look after a huge, 440-square- mile area of moorland, valleys, villages and isolated farms. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I've seen a police car pass through the village on a weekend in the past year. But this has not led to a feeling of hopelessness on the part of local residents. A strong sense of community ensures that few people exist outside the framework of basic communication and help. Even the most diehard eccentrics visit a village shop or are seen in the pub or the butcher's. People here realise that a community must to some extent take care of its own members. The figures for burglaries in the area are down 45 per cent over the past year. Tony Martin had a history of incidents with guns going back 20 years, and was clearly obsessed with itinerants. This tragedy could perhaps have been prevented if some of his neighbours had been quicker in revealing his behaviour to local care workers.
My evening with the residents of Downing Street reinforced the undeniable truth - that we have to find within ourselves the ability to be good neighbours, no matter how strong our traditional British reserve. Only by being decent neighbours can we reduce crime and prevent another Tony Martin deciding to take the law into his own hands.
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