Neighbourhood Watches in Sheffield are proving they are much more than ‘curtain twitchers’, as they take an increasingly proactive approach to stamping out crime in their communities.
From staging sports days and litter picks to carrying out weapons sweeps, the volunteer force is striving to shake off its undeserved reputation as a group of busybodies peering out through cracks in their curtains.
The ‘eyes and ears of the police’, as they have become known, are no longer just unpaid informants – they are working to bolster community spirit across the city while providing police with valuable extra manpower.
In Chancet Wood, dozens of young people enjoyed an action-packed summer thanks to sporting sessions organised by the local Neighbourhood Watch group.
They got to try their hand at everything from climbing to Zorbing, and had the chance to earn leadership qualifications to add to their CVs, at the twice-weekly events, funded using a £2,800 National Lottery grant.
The initiative has proved so popular, regularly attracting at least 30 youngsters, that more sessions are planned this autumn.
For Wendy Zealand, who runs the group there and was until recently Neighbourhood Watch district chairwoman for Sheffield, the aim is to encourage young people to play a positive role building the community in which they live rather than damaging it.
She claimed a minority of young people were involved in anti-social behaviour, including taking drugs and drinking in the playground which they sometimes left strewn with smashed glass.
“We want to stop young people doing this and to show the others coming up to that age you don’t have to be like that,” said the 78-year-old.
Ms Zealand, like many people, first got involved in Neighbourhood Watch after becoming a victim of crime.
She told how she and her three children were subjected to verbal and physical abuse by neighbours after moving to the area, and her youngest son had his head split open with a brick.
That experience, she explained, gave her the know-how to deal with such trouble and the determination to prevent other people’s lives being similarly blighted.
As well as organising the sports sessions, Ms Zealand said the watch reported dumping in the area so it could be cleared as soon as possible, looked after vulnerable residents and was attempting to fund an artist to cover up a graffiti-covered wall on the estate.
She told how she had recently helped set up numerous watches, especially in and around the city centre where members are particularly keen to combat street drinking and drug-taking.
And she hailed the example of the Greenhill group, which she said distributed a monthly newsletter funded by local shops to 1,700 homes and had achieved ‘very positive results’ related to drugs, burglary and vehicle crime.
“Neighbourhood Watches are doing so many different things in the communities where they operate, not just sitting behind their curtains and twitching,” she said.
Neighbourhood Watch began life in the US in 1964 and came to the UK, where there are now reportedly more than 160,000 groups operating, in 1982.
Watches have traditionally worked closely with police, passing on information about offences in their communities and helping disseminate crime prevention advice to the public.
In Sheffield, police say their contribution remains a valued one but officers are trying to reach out to a ‘wider spectrum’ of society.
Anyone can now sign up to receive South Yorkshire Police alerts, which were previously sent exclusively to watches, and police are encouraging residents’ associations and other community groups to play a similar role to watches in sharing information.
This new approach, which also involves greater use of social media to share targeted messages and get feedback from members of the public, has been dubbed Neighbourhood Networks.
Chief Inspector Stuart Walne said: “With Neighbourhood Watch, you look at the demographics and it’s been predominantly, although not exclusively, retired people.
“Neighbourhood Networks is a way of increasing that demographic and getting far more involvement from a wider spectrum of the community.
“It’s about creating sensible awareness about preventative measures which could make it harder for criminals without unnecessarily stoking fear.”
He added that watches still had an important role to play, along with other community groups, in helping police spot emerging trends and sharing advice which is relevant in areas where there has been a spate of burglaries or other crimes.
They were also invited to assist police conducting so-called ‘walk-throughs’ in their communities, he said, which can uncover hidden weapons as well as getting neighbours talking to one another.
Ken Crowder is the area coordinator for Owlthorpe Neighbourhood Watch, which is integrated with Owlthorpe Community Forum.
A big part of what members do are the weekly litter picks, which he says not only smarten up the streets but help reduce crime and antisocial behaviour.
“If you keep your neighbourhood clean you will start to see a drop in crime and anti-social behaviour, because rubbish attracts crime and anti-social behaviour,” he said.
“Active communities reduce crime, and Neighbourhood Watch can be part of that. If you have an active community you get people looking after one another and keeping their front gardens tidy. That’s why this is a clean and pleasant area in which to live.”
Mr Crowder said Owlthorpe had problems in the past with vandals trashing gardens and setting fire to hedges, but the area was now relatively peaceful.
Today, the big bugbear is fly-tipping, which he claims is both unsightly and a public health hazard.
Mr Crowder said the group reports dumped waste on a weekly basis for council contractor Amey to clear, and he believes the only long-term solution is to install more cameras to catch the culprits.
For more information about Neighbourhood Watch, visit www.ourwatch.org.uk.
The upcoming dates for the sports sessions in Chancet Wood, taking place on the playing fields at the end of Abbey Brook Drive, are:
Saturday, October 20, 10.30am-12pm
Saturday, October 27, 10.30am-12pm
Monday, October 29, 1pm-2.30pm
Wednesday, October 31, 10am-12pm – including inflatable football pitch
Saturday, November 3, 10am-12pm – sports day