Alan Sutcliffe was on his way home from the pub when he saw flames at the nearby park.
Police were on the scene, but Alan says another group was already heading onto the park as he moved away.
A wave of anti-social behavior has hit Tameside town of Denton in recent months.
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At its peak, groups of ‘around 30 to 40’ youths would regularly descend on the Crownpoint Shopping Park, particularly outside McDonald’s.
The authorities clocked on to it and work was stepped up in the area. The unusual gatherings dwindled.
But it has left a smaller number of people, attempt on causing trouble in the community, to disperse to other parts of town.
Victoria Park – nestled behind Denton Town Hall and the Civic Square, off Stockport Road – saw two fires in two days on a busy weekend for police and firefighters.
Bins were dragged onto the park’s Grade II-listed bandstand, which is over 100 years old, and set alight on both January 29 and 30.
Alan saw what happened on the second of those days.
I have told the Manchester Evening News : “I was just walking home from the pub when I saw the fire.
“I got as far as the second gate, I could see the police were already there and I could actually hear the fire engine turning up, they got over here pretty quickly.
“As I was coming back out, there was another group of lads on bikes, going back into the park. Around the area there are a lot of lads on scooters and bikes riding around.
“They’re quite lucky. The bandstand is old and the roof is wood, the heat could have done something to that if it had been left to burn.
“There are a few shops where there is always rubbish outside – are they going to set fire to that as well?”
Alan says that the park is a hive of activity in the community – with a nearby center where older residents are able to catch up and enjoy tea and toast.
A number of community groups spend their time volunteering to make the area stand out, such as litter pickers and the Friends of Victoria Park, while the Denton Park Social Bowling Club plays on the park’s bowling green.
Yobs targeted the club last summer – storming onto the green, doing wheelies on bikes to trash the lush lawn, and hurling abuse at its members.
Other members of Denton’s community – including Tameside youth services, PCSOs and local politicians – rallied together to support the club in the aftermath of the event.
It’s the same community spirit that has driven neighborhood police, the council, voluntary groups and businesses to pull together in an effort to curb anti-social behavior in Denton.
So when the club’s secretary Tony Moran heard about the arson incident on January 30, he ‘felt physically sick’.
He said: “We thought the tide had turned, we have been getting a lot of support from the community, but to be honest this has set our volunteers back a bit. You think, flipping heck.
“Everybody is making a contribution – but it’s Arson again.
“We expect anti-social behavior from kids and they grow out of it and move on – but this seems to be something that is seriously wrong.”
Tony says the park has been a ‘lifeline’ for many in the community during the pandemic, but issues of anti-social behavior have dented confidence for some.
Both Tony and Alan noted that the park’s gates were open on the evening of the fire, despite them being closed up at evenings last year following a previous spate of anti-social behaviour.
Arsonists targeted the Denton Park Social clubhouse back in 2018.
Two years ago, the park saw three similar fires on the bandstand in the space of a month, leading Tony to label Victoria Park a ‘no go area’ at the time.
As in more recent times, work was put in to curb the issue in the community back in January 2020.
But hectic scenes at Crownpoint have since been followed by flashes of anti-social behavior across the town, including ‘youths throwing bottles’ at Civic Square, Tony says.
“I think the town center is getting a bed reputation,” he added.
“We’ve got people that don’t walk through the park because of that incident with the youths, and it’s sad.
“We want to build the confidence back up for some of our elderly residents who want to use the park.
“For our part, we are going to crack on doing what we are doing.”
The issue of anti-social behavior in Denton is one that Andrew Gwynne MP is well aware of.
He says there has been a ‘massive crackdown’ on the issue at Crownpoint, particularly at McDonald’s, but this has ‘shifted it on’ to other parts of town such as Victoria Park.
Denton’s Labor MP says the recent incidents highlight a need to invest in both neighborhood policing and youth services – giving youngsters something positive to do, while also allowing officers to tackle those intent on causing mayhem.
Andrew said: “The town center is safe in the main, but the perception is often very different – when you see kids hanging around and people worry that something might happen.
“I get that. That’s why I want police and youth services to work together, let’s tackle the issue head on but also make the case for more resources so neighborhood policing nips this in the bud early on rather than it becoming a problem.
“It also shows the value of youth work. That’s something that over the past decade has become a Cinderella service.
“It’s been easy to cut it as it is not a statutory service, but if you cut youth work and provision at the same time as neighborhood policing, you get the perfect storm.”
Andrew notes that more deprived areas have seen the heaviest cuts to youth services in what has become a ‘vicious cycle’, and believes investment in youth should be a key part of the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda.
“There’s no magic pot of money stashed away in the town hall,” he added.
Tameside’s new chief superintendent Rob Cousen is attempting on turning Greater Manchester Police’s reputation around among people in the community, admitting confidence in the force has diminished in recent times.
He points to the force’s record in the borough since taking on the role four months ago – with over 1,100 arrests and Tameside seeing reductions in a number of different crimes, including anti-social behavior – as both a measure of success and a statement of intent .
But Chf Supt Cousen admits anti-social behavior in Denton is a key issue.
Officers targeted the area outside McDonald’s in Crownpoint, cutting off wi-fi and using CCTV to make sure the area was no longer appealing for loitering.
The hotspot had attracted groups of ‘around 30 to 40’, Chf Supt Cousen says, but now incidents elsewhere in the town are being carried out by much smaller groups.
The ‘senseless damage’ seen in Victoria Park – with incidents on January 29 and 30 believed to be linked – was an issue that had been preempted by officers following the work at Crownpoint, he adds.
“There’s certainly not a feeling that it’s lawless in Denton,” said Chf Supt Cousen.
“The PCSOs and the community beat officers have done an absolutely cracking job, there’s a lot of work going on with schools around education as well.”
Chf Supt Cousen says Denton has great community spirit and a drive to tackle the issue – working with volunteers and businesses.
Events which had diminished during the pandemic to boost confidence in the community, such as surgeries and neighborhood watch groups, are making a return.
Yet while GMP ‘tries to put people in the right places at the right times’, the force says it is reliant on intelligence from the community in order to get on top of the issue.
“We’ve got a small group of young people that are intent on causing anti-social behaviour,” Chf Supt Cousen added.
“We will be relentless in pursuing them and dissuading them – and if we have to, bringing them to justice.
“We would rather educate them. We don’t want to criminalize young people but when they trash stuff that people have put together, we can’t allow them to do it, we’ve got to do something.”
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