Big rise in use of ‘last resort’ powers to shut down Suffolk drug dens
Police are shutting down more and more drug dens but is it making a difference to the communities blighted by crime, disorder and anti-social behaviour?
“It’s been like chalk and cheese,” said Liam Roberts, of Southgate and Roberts Funeral Home in Ipswich’s St Matthews Street.
The area had become rife with crime until late last year when police used closure orders to shut down two drug dens and drive the dealers out.
The orders have now expired but Mr Roberts said the improvements they brought have continued. “It’s stopped all the drug users who used this area as a meeting point,” he added. “There were long-running historical problems, which had actually affected the letting of some of the units here. But the changes have had a significant effect.”
Suffolk police figures, released following a Freedom of Information request, show closure orders were used nine times last year – compared with just four occasions from 2014-16.
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The massive rise is said to be linked to London drug gangs which have been targeting Suffolk through “county lines” operations – preying upon vulnerable addicts, often taking over their homes as a base to sell drugs in a practice known as “cuckooing”.
One woman, a heroin addict of 27 years, had her Ipswich flat closed down last year after drug dealers moved in. She told a court the dealers threatened to set her alight. At another Ipswich flat, which also shut last year, the dealers had intimidated a 74-year-old man living there.
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People living and working near to drug dens reported seeing discarded needles and human excrement in the street - but say the closure orders have helped.
Issued by magistrates following applications from police, councils and housing associations, the orders seek to tackle persistent problems at a property. Problems can include anti-social behaviour, nuisance, or noise – but most recent closures relate to drugs.
Ipswich has seen a big rise in drug crime - and eight of the 10 latest orders were at properties in the town, many of them around St Matthews Street; St Helens Street or the Westgate area.
Wendy Crafton, secretary at the Westgate Ward Social Club, said two nearby properties had closed last year because of drug dealing and a near-fatal stabbing.
“People were standing around in huddles, near to the properties, and we all knew what they were up to,” she added. “They were coming to these premises, normally for drugs, but once they were closed they knew not to come back and so they moved on.”
Although the crackdown has been praised, Ms Crafton said the homes had been boarded up for too long. “While the area looks like a war zone it will be treated like one,” she said.
Leroy Campbell, who lives in Wells Close, near to where a flat was closed in September, said it was “more peaceful” since it happened. “It’s quiet now because they’ve been caught but it will happen again,” he added.
Many St Helens Street shops were unaware of closure orders but noted recent improvements.
Staff at Robertson’s Florists said: “There have been a couple of occasions when we’ve come in and there have been needles and poo in the carpark, but that’s not happened for a while.”
Another shop owner said: “There used to be a lot of people taking drugs and it made us wary, but recently it seems a lot better.”
Anita De-Vaux Balbirnie, who opened Tutti Frutti Barnet Fair in St Helens Street earlier this year, called for more visible policing.
Since moving into the shop, she arrived at work to find a trail of blood running along the pavement where someone had been stabbed.
“We need to see more police,” she added. “There’s the odd PCSO but no bobbies on the beat.”
Inspector Andy Pursehouse said the increase in closure orders was partially a response to “county lines” and the need to protect vulnerable people. He said the use of closure orders was a “last resort” but also a “powerful tool” in the fight against crime. “Anti-social behaviour can blight lives and we’ve found that when we’ve exhausted other options, or when there’s vulnerable people involved, it’s a useful tool to stop the disorder,” he added.
Ipswich Borough Council’s community safety officer Peter Watson said he worked closely with police on orders
“It disrupts the drug activity at that address and the publicity around the case tends to significantly reduce the risk for new tenants,” he added.
Notting Hill Genesis housing association said closure orders were a “fast, effective tool” to tackle disorder.
“Although a useful tool, a closure order should be considered as a last resort once all other interventions have been exhausted,” a spokesman added.