Picture by Derek Harper/Geograph
When our communities are connected and work together to overcome challenges the results can be fantastic – unfortunately the reverse is also true and a breakdown between police, councils, residents and the private sector can create problems that weren’t there before.
There was a good example of this last week when a council took action to close down a property which had too many people inside it and inadequate fire safety measures in place. The Manor House, in Cullompton, had been home to around 40 people who were mostly from Bulgaria and who were employed by the 2 Sisters chicken processing plant in nearby Willand.
The council should be applauded for cracking down in this way, it has a duty to ensure that hotels and houses of multiple occupancy are safe and comply with sensible rules designed to protect their residents. However, it did draw criticism that more could have been done to help those made homeless by the decision.
When the closure order was served residents of the Manor were offered housing advice by council staff but none chose to take them up on it. Perhaps there were communication problems caused by a language barrier or a mistrust of officialdom? Whatever the reason, the result was that a number of former Manor residents found themselves in immediate need of accommodation.
The impact of this number of people being suddenly on the streets is keenly felt in a town the size of Cullompton, and fairly soon the local policing team were receiving complaints about people knocking on doors and asking for a place to stay, redundant properties were taken on by these individuals and there were reports of low level anti-social behaviour.
The frustrations of a local community have been voiced strongly on social media, with many allegations made about the behaviour of this group to police and town councillors in the weeks since the closure order was served.
It’s important to note that the local policing team, who do an outstanding job with finite resources, have had very few reports of crime relating to this group since the closure, and those complaints they have received are for very minor activities, some of which - like drinking in public - are not necessarily illegal.
That’s not to say though, that there aren’t legitimate concerns relating to this group and consequences to their homelessness. Some residents have complained that they find these groups of young men intimidating and the matter has done little to calm tensions between people who have lived in the Culm Valley their entire lives and those who have moved here in significant numbers in search of work.
I am pleased to report that 2 Sisters, the district council and town council are now working with police to come up with a long-term solution to this problem, and are being assisted by the neighbourhood policing team and local street pastors. The town council agreed at its meeting on Thursday (26/07) to help set up a drop-in centre where migrant workers can receive housing advice and support.
It’s a shame that these different parties couldn’t have worked more closely together before the closure notice was served. What began life as a local authority legitimately enforcing fire safety regulations didn’t need to become a police matter and a great deal of stress and tension could have been avoided.
The meat processing plant itself is a real Devon success story. It’s one of the largest employers in the county, counting major supermarkets among its clients and providing a livelihood to thousands of employers, farmers and contractors.
However, I think that 2 Sisters has a social and moral responsibility to work with local partners to ensure that the impact of its operation on the communities that live near its operation are mostly positive in terms of contributing to the local economy, and it comes up with solutions to mitigate any negative consequences.
I was therefore pleased to hear that 2 Sisters is now involved in constructive talks with council members about this issue. I have written to the chief executive of the group, Ronald Kers, to ask him what the company does to ensure the workers it brings from all over Europe to this part of Devon are adequately housed. I am also in contact with the district council and asking that lessons are learned to help it deal with migrant workers who might not have the local support networks enjoyed by those of us who have lived in Devon for a while.
A key part of the Devon and Cornwall Police and Crime Plan, which is set out by my office and implemented by the force, relates to preventing crime by encouraging connected communities.
I think this is a great example of how relations between local authorities, a large local company and the police might have prevented complaints of crime being made in the first place. If we can encourage more connected communities to improve resilience and encourage problem-solving then we all benefit.