ARMED With The Gift Of The Gab

COMMUNITY wardens started patrolling Inverclyde’s streets just over three years ago. Their unique role is often misunderstood and has attracted criticism. As the men and women of the unit wait to hear if the Government will continue paying for the service, Inverclyde Now writer Jeremy Burrows joined two wardens on duty in east central Greenock.

Wardens Graeme Collins, left, and Donald Hardie chat with teenagers in Broomhill.

It’s 2.30pm on Friday afternoon and I’m sitting in a narrow bunker-style locker room in the basement of council offices in West Stewart Street, Greenock. This is where Tom Campbell is briefing his team of community wardens before they head out to the front-line in the battle against anti-social behaviour.

Campbell is in charge of Inverclyde’s social protection team and it takes him a good half hour to update the shift on what’s been happening – they are returning from their time off to work the next four days.

It’s a long list of ‘hotspots’ where the wardens are to be on the look-out for problems. It’s a familiar list -- teenagers drinking or taking drugs, adults buying drink for them, graffiti, fireworks being let off, noisy households. Around 3pm, six units set off to patrol their patches until midnight. The warden service covers those hours seven days a week.

I head out in the rain with Donald Hardie and Graeme Collins who have both been in the job three years, almost as long as the service has existed. They patrol is east central Greenock and, for the next few hours, we tour the area between roughly Grosvenor Road and Ann Street. The wardens have a mobile phone and are contacted by senior wardens if there is a call for them to attend.

We stop at Lynedoch Court, a condemned high-rise still with some families in it. Donald observes: “It was the only place where you had to look left, right -- and up.” He explains that paint used to be thrown down on people from the upper floors. Looking up now, a different sight greets me as Donald points out a painting of Christ staring down from one of the high landings, many of which have been sealed off now.

Donald and Graeme recall attending a call to the 17th floor landing and finding blood, urine, excrement and syringes. We have a quick look in the laundry, find nothing untoward and head back to the van.

When the wardens first went on to the streets three years ago, there was considerable hostility from local youths, their vans getting "bricked" with some regularity at the start. Donald says that has died down as the young people have got to know them. The wardens have gained a degree of respect on the street and I see this for myself as we come across some teenagers in Broomhill.

Donald knows them especially well as he has been on this patch a lot longer – Graeme shifted from Port Glasgow a few months ago. The group indulge in some friendly banter before moving on. Donald sums it up: “When the young people are sober they are brand new. When they have got a drink in them they change. We try and talk to them; get them off the streets and into youth clubs and the internet bus. If you move them from one place to another we just get calls coming from the next place. We turn up and tell them the police are coming if they don’t move on.”

The wardens can’t arrest people, have no weapons or body armour. “We are armed with the gift of the gab,” said Donald, adding: “The police respond very quickly if we need help.”

Equipment on the van amounts to pen and paper, a torch, a sharps kit for syringes and a first aid kit – Donald once saved the life of a teenager who had been attacked.

Donald used to run a wallpaper and paint shop and a couple of newsagents. He was unemployed when he heard about the warden jobs and decided to give it a try. Graeme was fed up with being a security guard after 13 years. He said: “This is different every day. You don’t know what you are getting.”

One of the advantages of the system is that the wardens get to know their areas very well and the people in them. At the briefing earlier, Tom had praised Graeme and another warden who had dealt with a call to vandalism at a school in Port Glasgow. They had asked to view footage of the incident and Graeme had been able to identify one of those involved.

The wardens are also trained as professional witnesses, saving members of the public from having to testify. Opinions are mixed on the value of the wardens and they know it, but as we take a look round the Strone, Donald announces proudly: “They love us up here. They say we are one of the best things that’s happened.”

I leave the van at 6.30pm when Graeme and Donald stop for their break. It’s been a quiet few hours in the fight to curb anti-social behaviour – a fight wardens may not be involved in for much longer. Funding for the service runs out in March and there has been no decision yet from the Scottish Government on whether community wardens will continue.

Speaking to Tom Campbell later he acknowledges there are strong views about the effectiveness of the service. He said: “The public love them or hate them – but it is the people who use the service who are really up-beat. He continued: “People see them sitting in the van while an incident is taking place and think they are doing nothing but they are putting the circumstances down on paper, identifying people involved and the police act on that.

“We are one of the very few authorities that use the wardens as professional witnesses. They have given evidence 100 times; that’s 100 times police and public have not had to go to court.

“The evidence they have given is so good that Inverclyde’s principal sheriff has said that attacks on community wardens will be treated the same as if they had been carried out on police officers."

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