RETAILERS and traders are being ‘failed’ in Taunton as people are being spat at and assaulted on the streets, while drug deals and littering blight the town, and aggressive beggars are scaring shoppers away.

Taunton Deane council officials, the police, hospital workers and businesses throughout Taunton have all admitted there is a problem – but no one wants to claim the responsibility of a solution.

The matter was discussed at length at a meeting on Tuesday, February 19, as five councillors grilled and probed various witnesses about their experiences with crime and anti-social behaviour in the town. But blame and accountability was passed around like a hot potato.

The meeting was led by Cllr Ian Morrell, who asked Taunton residents to get in touch at the beginning of the month with their experiences of the issues in the town.

He was joined by Cllrs Habib Farbahi, Roger Habgood, Dave Durdan, and Cllr Simon Coles joined later in the day.

Cllr Morrell said: "I think everyone individually does great work - but the partnership is not working.

"We are not trying to apportion blame but there has to be accountability.

“We accept there is a problem, now let’s try and find a solution.”

The meeting heard from traders from around the town, including the manager of TKMaxx and traders from East Reach.

Elle Perry, manager of the clothing giant, said she has to report crime daily as she struggles to keep up with the theft and anti-social behaviour around TKMaxx.

She said traders get little help from cash-strapped police, who cannot send an officer without the threat of violence.

She said: "Most of my time is spent on calling 101, calming customers down - while trying to run my store.

"In 2018, we had a loss of £120,000 - 85 per cent to theft.

"As a growing business in the high street - I don't see a bright future when I am producing these losses year on year and not getting a lot of support from the police.

"We get theft from the same people that the police are aware of.

"We do have security within store, but they get very little support. If they do detain someone sometimes they have to wait up to two hours before the police attend."

The store manager says there are around 12 people currently banned from her store and others around the town, but that ban is broken every single day.

Cllr Farbahi said the traders in the town are being ‘failed’ and that a ‘sense of security’ was needed by shoppers in the town if they’re going to return.

Denise Cross, of County Flowers, and secretary for the East Reach Traders Association spoke of her experience with anti-social behaviour, and explained businesses are closing quickly because of the crime in the area.

She said: "I think most people are aware of the issues we have down East Reach.

"Most are between Lindley House and the town.

"We have lots of issues. Although we are told police will attend, often they don't. We have fights outside our shops and we are still waiting for police to come.

"Rough sleepers are breaking into bins and sleeping in there. Syringes are left lying around.

"General ASB in the streets, particularly in the morning. Running and fighting in the road.

"One of our traders was quite severely beaten up.

"We are losing lots of traders. Very shortly the butchers is going to go and the newsagents.

"We do suffer down there."

She added traders grow disillusioned with reporting incidents to the police, as very often little is done to help them.

David Malcolm, from Rowcliffes, said although a lot of their problems are related to Lindley House, the ARC homeless charity property where homeless people live - they don't mean to 'pick on them'.

He says they have been broken into twice by the same man in the last two months, costing £1,000 a time.

He said: "I have had to update security because the insurance people aren't happy.

"The security fitter said it was absurd because the only place you'd find this kind of security is a bank.

"My staff are afraid to walk up East Reach on their lunch breaks.

"We don't know what to do. I have never seen a Streetwise warden there.

"Why should we have to pick up the cost?

"There has got to be something that we as a community can do.

"The police are hand-tied."

He said it's a 'sad indictment' of the legal system when things don't get prosecuted.

He added: "It's a mess, and it's not getting any better."

Keith Lower, from Orchard Shopping Centre, said he is struggling to keep his duty of care to keep his staff safe.

A member of staff from ARC says one of the biggest struggles facing rough sleepers in the town is the use of drug 'spice'.

She said losing the rough sleeper hostel, Norrie House, which was staffed 24/7, has also had a big impact.

Somerset County Gazette:
ACTION: Councillors Simon Coles, Dave Durdan, Habib Farbahi, Ian Morrell and Roger Habgood

Another ARC worker, who is based at Lindley House, explained the problems facing people struggling with addiction issues, as the 'one size fits all' approach doesn't work for everyone.

She added: "We have relaxed the rules. We understand if we ask them to leave there will be a problem in the town centre.

"We are trying to do a lot of things.

"We do need continued support from the other agencies."

The charity works to provide help, support and housing to people in need.

It also has an outreach team which engages with the rough sleeper community in the town to ensure people are getting the support they need.

Avon and Somerset Police says it has to prioritise the incidents officers go to, but the force is one of the only ones in the country to not cut funding to neighbour policing.

Opinions differ on what action should be taken to prevent repeat offenders carrying out business crime.

READ MORE: LIVING WITH CRIME: Your experiences of anti-social behaviour in Taunton 

Traders would like to see them punished for their actions, but Lisa Simpson, chief inspector, said ‘locking them up for a few months’ will have minor impact on their behaviour.

She explained the force had lost 700 officers in seven years, and work to reduce sex and violent crimes has been successful.

She added police cannot be the ones to lead the solution, as more work needs to be done to prevent offenders reaching these stages.

“What we are talking about today isn't, and shouldn't be, police led,” she said.

"We need to move away from saying these examples, as horrendous as they are, are police led.

"We need to work out why these things are happening.

"When it comes back to drugs, alcohol and mental health, we should be at the end of the process of resolving.

"Everything else in their lives have broken down.

"We work with our partners to work out in the beginning what are our priorities, where is our funding and how we are going to do it.

"What is it about them that allows them to be in town with a drug and alcohol problem.

"From years of police experience, arresting them does not stop their behaviour."

But what is being done so far?

Previously, TDBC funded a street warden team, who were usually the first people on the scene in an incident, and could communicate with businesses via radio link and known offenders reacted better to them than to police officers.

The service has been running on and off since the end of 2014.

Most recently they were recruited to work until the end of March this year, but funding cuts meant the service ceased at the end of January.

The word of the day was ‘partnership’, but Cllr Morrell asked each witness who they thought should lead this.

The council said it doesn’t think responsibility should lie with the authority, but discussions need to be held.

Brendan Cleere, from TDBC, appears to have been forced to answer this question.

He said: "It's really not possible to say one agency is responsible.

"People need to be around the table weekly.

"Then it may be the police, the council, the businesses themselves, all who need to work together to identify the most appropriate response in each scenario.

"Sorry it's not black and white."

The question was raised if businesses should be doing more to protect themselves.

Through a business improvement district (BID), money could be set aside for preventing anti-social behaviour in the town, and it could also incorporate a subscription to a security system – but at a cost, of course.

Lisa Redstow, from the localities team of TDBC, said although BID proposals are in the works, progress was still more than a year away, and a solution was needed to solve the problem now.

Representatives from Musgrove Park Hospital also attended the meeting, explaining how abuse has become ‘part of everyday life’ for staff. Rough sleepers can also be seen around the site.

There are currently 60 CCTV cameras based around the town, which are used to monitor crime and assist the police in investigations. The cameras are under the control of Sedgemoor District Council, who TDBC pays £250,000 to hold the contract.

Cllr Morrell questioned whether this was ‘value for money’.

SDC is looking at plans to use a new system called DISC, which would see all businesses in town linked up under a security community. Businesses would have to pay a fee to get involved but it would act as a ‘panic button’. Individual incidents would be logged onto the system, creating a profile of repeat offenders, with added witness statements, which could be used to secure prosecutions, or to enable other agencies to get involved.

Andy Sharman, who previously ran a Business Crime Reduction Partnership in the town until it was axed by the Deane in 2014, said he felt a bad kind of vindication to be having this discussion, as his scheme was already achieving things the council is trying to now.

Mr Sharman said: "At the time we had about 80 businesses on the scheme. It worked really well, we had a wonderful relationship with the authorities.

"Our problems were exasperated when we got a bit of funding for a new CCTV system. The funding wasn't as forthcoming as we wanted it to be, and that allowed some frustration to develop within our partners.

"Things got a little bit weird, things started happening that were out of the ordinary. It struck us perhaps there were elements purposely trying to undermine our scheme.

"Towards the end it was a concerted effort for them to undermine our scheme so much that they could pull the plug on it.

"We consulted our members, most of whom had confidence in the service they were getting.

"I kind of feel vindicated in a way that we are having this conversation."

As far as solutions go, currently there are none. It was agreed a ‘partnership’ was needed to tackle the problems, more joined up thinking, but who it would involve and who would take the led is yet to be decided.

Cllr Morrell and his panel will now create a report with ‘objective’ comments on how to move forward.

But for now, traders and shoppers in Taunton will continue to face the problems on their own.