Leighton Buzzard businesses are rallying together to tackle anti-social behaviour, with more than 30 shops signing up to a pioneering new Safe Zone scheme.
Determined town centre cycling shop Dorvic’s first initiated the idea in September when they announced that they were offering their Bridge Street store as a safe harbour for children if any felt scared, after reports from Linslade about four boys threatened at knifepoint for their bikes.
Now, with the help of Tim Robinson, of Old Smoke Vapes, and local photographer, Steve Thewis, who created the Safe Zone Facebook page, the scheme has snowballed, with more than 30 shops declaring their premises as a safe zone.
Ashley Lewis, owner of Dorvic’s Cycles, said: “The idea was simple, we were hearing stories of kids getting mugged at knifepoint for their bikes and as parents ourselves, we had to find a way to help. Bike theft is a big problem in Leighton Buzzard and as a bike shop we want to encourage people to ride bikes and not be scared to take them outside.
“The initial offer was to allow any child out cycling, who was away from home and felt threatened, a safe place to lock their bikes up, stay inside our shop for as long as needed and use the phone to alert parents. Since posting this on social media it went viral, we had such a positive response from parents and also other businesses offering to help.
“The Safe Zone initiative has now grown with the help of other shop owners setting up the social media group and support from many other local businesses and shops in ‘LB’.
“It has now been extended to offer help to anyone who feels vulnerable or threatened, not just cyclists. We do frequently get kids asking for help, and as we recognise most of the trouble makers and gangs, we can be pretty sure that pleas for help are genuine.
“It would be nice not to have to resort to this but policing in town is stretched and the gangs know that so feel they can get away with anything.”
Tim Robinson, who owns Old Smoke Vapes, Waterborne Walk, said: “About a month ago some kid had their skateboard stolen in the park. He came here and I let him use the phone to call his mum.
“I just want people to know if they need to get away or need help they can come here - it is a safe zone for them.
“It’s not your usual Vape shop; people can come here and have a coffee and I have a few regulars ladies that sit outside with a coffee.
“It is a place where everyone is welcome and with the increase in crime recently I want people to know they can come here if they need to.”
Hearing of the initiatives, Steve Thewis, organiser of RetroPlay, wanted to raise awareness about what Dorvics and Tim had done, so spoke to the town’s PCSOs and made a Facebook page last week.
Steve, of Studio Infinity, High Street, claimed: “I have spoken to the PCSOs and they support the idea.
“I decided to make a Facebook page to gather all the safe zone places together - that way everyone knows where they are. In less than 24 hours it had nearly 70 likes and now it has nearly 1,000.
“The scheme is actually a national thing - I’m surprised no-one knows about it or that the councils haven’t set something up already.”
Steve told the LBO that he is currently waiting for Bedfordshire Police to give the scheme the go-ahead, before Safe Zone window stickers are issued to shops, and that so far the force has been very supportive. And with the overwhelming support Dorvics received, it’s no wonder other businesses have signed up.
Adrienne Lowther, florist at Adrienne’s Flowers, Ropa Court, said: “I think it’s a good scheme because there’s a lot of trouble going on at the moment, but having said that I think any shop down town would welcome anybody without advertising the fact.
“Bikes are being stolen, phones are being stolen, people are being egged. It happens in the town centre.
“I don’t think they are fussy - they target anybody.
“Incidents happen two or three times a week - you here about it on social media or between the businesses.”
But while Adrienne says they haven’t experienced trouble in the shop, other businesses have joined as a result of crime.
Rosa Cristini, owner of SoYou Boutique, claimed: “The reason is that we feel that the retailers need to support one another - I think we don’t get enough support from the police.
“Our shop was vandalised [last week] and we had to scrub the paint off the outside which took a couple of hours - but because we got it off the police don’t see it as vandalism.
“We were disappointed, really disappointed. So we joined because of that really, and also because of what has been happening over the past months. There has been a lot of vandalism, intimidation, people walking past and spitting through doors.
“There’s also quite a few ladies who are on their own in some shops and there have been incidents of groups of around six teenagers walking in - they may only be about 13 years old but they are still intimidating.
“We don’t want trade to be taken away from the high street. There’s a lot of unrest amongst the retailers, but in terms of clubbing together and supporting one another, that’s our strength.”
Mandy Humphrey, who runs Twinstyle Salon in Peacock Mews with her business partner and twin sister Julie Jones, emphasised that the Safe Zone is for everyone, not just children. She said: “Julie said she had read about it and it’s nice to be part of a scheme so people can feel safe - everyone has pulled together.
“Previously, we had a client who came to us [after an upsetting experience] and she came in for a cup of tea. We can do that for anyone. Another shopper [who had additonal needs] also said she was glad she found us because she felt safe here.”
And it’s not just town centre shops that are offering safe havens, with businesses such as Marshalls Coaches, Firbank Way, McDonald’s, Billington Road, and Blood Rush Tattoo Studio, Clarence Road offering somewhere safe in other areas of the town.
Spencer Allen, owner and tattoo artist at Blood Rush, said: “I’m a single father and I have a fifteen year old son, Kiri - if he needs somewhere to go I think it is really important for him to feel safe. We get the school children from Gilbert Inglefield and Vandyke walking past, and if they need to get away from someone and come in here, whoever is causing trouble can’t just casually walk into our shop!
“I’m autistic and I grew up being bullied; I think it is very important to offer these zones - there was nothing around like that when I was younger.”
A Central Bedfordshire Council spokeswoman, said: “We were only made aware of this new initiative last week.
“We are of course always keen to support the businesses, residents and shoppers. The local neighbourhood police team are working with the organisers and the national Safe Place scheme to fully understand how it works in practice and will advise the council and other community safety partners as to how we might take it forwards.”
A Leighton - Linslade Town Council spokesman, said: “Whilst community safety is not a statutory responsibility of the Town Council, it takes the well-being of those who live, work and visit the parish extremely seriously.
“By way of the Operation Dodford Agreement it has with Bedfordshire Police, the Town Council commits £40,000 per annum to community safety measures including market day patrols, event policing, speed awareness devices as well as re-deployable CCTV cameras.
“As a concept, the idea of providing a safe refuge for children who become separated from their parents or guardians is welcomed. How the scheme would operate is a matter we would look to the police and Central Bedfordshire Council to lead on”.
A Bedfordshire Police spokeswoman, said: “We are aware of the planned Leighton Buzzard Safe Zones scheme and, at the present time, we are in communication with the organisers and the local authority about how it will be run and administered.
“Whilst we applaud the initiative, we have a duty of care to fully understand the scope and responsibility of such a scheme. Bedfordshire is no different to other counties in the UK where reported crime is on the increase. However, Leighton Buzzard remains one of the safest places to live and work in the region.”
Commenting about SoYou Boutique, a Bedfordshire Police Spokeswoman, said: “The substance sprayed on the shop window appeared to be shaving foam or fake snow and was easily washed off by the staff. There were no opportunities for forensics and no commercial loss to the premises, but the incident has been logged.”