Picture: Graham Mitchell
Val Gibson and Karen O’Hara, who run the community hub in North Ormesby, on the outskirts of Middlesbrough, remember the attack with a coolness befitting residents of the most lawless region in the United Kingdom. It takes several minutes before O’Hara recalls: “Oh. That man who came into the office? Yeah, he had a machete. He was going to slice us all up.” Gibson lets out an indomitable chuckle. “We forgot about that,” adds her colleague. “Water off a duck’s back.”
Given nobody was hurt, and given the relative frequency with which such events take place, perhaps they can be forgiven for failing to remember such a striking event: data published by the Office for National Statistics this month revealed that the Cleveland police area had the highest total recorded crime rate in England and Wales. The district — which covers Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Stockton and Redcar — had 114.9 offences per 1,000 people (the lowest, North Yorkshire, had 50.5). None of this is news to those on the front line in North Ormesby, the most deprived ward in Middlesbrough (itself the fifth most deprived local authority area in England).
The suburb — already struggling with high unemployment and widespread drug addiction — has become notorious as a kind of national “human dumping ground” for refugees and newly released criminals. A 2017 analysis by the BBC found the ward to have the cheapest property in the country, with an average price of £36,000. “I’ve met a few people who’ve come out of jail in London and they’ve sent them straight up here for the cheap housing,” says Gibson, who adds that many properties are in such a state of disrepair that the residents try to spend as much time outside of their homes as possible.
The area used to have a post office, which shut down after it became a magnet for thieves and the owner was repeatedly attacked. One local says: “You never see an old lady walking around here on her own. They’re always in twos or with family because of the bag-snatching.”
“I’ve been burgled and that,” Gibson says with a shrug. “I’ve had two cars stolen. Insurance – that’s the only protection you really have.” Gibson, 64, and O’Hara, 63, are among those trying to turn things around. They are employed as part of the Big Local initiative, which has been given £1 million of lottery funding to spend over ten years. The cash has been used to install 38 CCTV cameras (the one in the market place has a speaker so officers can warn stallholders when local pickpockets are spotted) and to buy six houses “to hopefully stop rubbish landlords coming in”.
Though both women repeatedly state how much they love their neighbourhood and its irrepressible community spirit, Gibson admits: “It will take more than us to solve the problem.” Last month, in Redcar, the police station itself was vandalised with graffiti that said: “F*** off. C***s. Shoot police dead.” Only two weeks ago, a police van responding to a 999 call in Hemlington had its brakes “intentionally cut”.
Cleveland’s Assistant Chief Constable described the latter as a “dangerous and callous act” — but it was also symbolic. The police force could provide enough scandal for a new series of Line of Duty; the wheels have all but come off.
In 2019, Cleveland became the first force in England and Wales to be rated ‘inadequate’ across all areas. Officers described their force as “directionless, rudderless and clueless”, while inspectors found it was failing to identify staff most at risk of corruption and “putting the public at risk”. When I put this to the police force, a spokesman told me: “We are particularly focussed on addressing serious violence and will continue to bid for additional funding in this area. Cleveland Police is working hard to address these challenges by protecting the vulnerable and preventing and detecting crime. HMICFRS have noted significant improvements since 2019.”
Yet despite these “improvements”, the force is now seeking its seventh boss in nine years. Sean Price was sacked for gross misconduct in 2012, the first chief constable in the UK to be dismissed in 35 years, after he lied about his role in the recruitment of the former police authority chairman’s daughter. It was announced in August that Mike Veale, who resigned in 2019 after less than a year in the role, is to face gross misconduct proceedings.
Even Cleveland’s Police and Crime Commissioner is leaving residents wanting. In September, Steve Turner — the Conservative elected only in May “to be the voice of the people and hold the police to account” — was accused in Parliament by a Labour MP of having been sacked by a former employer for “systematic theft”. Mr Turner demanded the “unsubstantiated” claim be retracted, 24 hours before admitting he had accepted a police caution in the late 1990s “in relation to an event at a supermarket store where I was employed” (the event, he later revealed, was handling stolen goods).
As if that were not enough, after being told Mr Turner was available for an interview for this article, I was told he was suddenly unavailable after he was accused of a historical sexual assault. He appeared on the local ITV news last week to maintain that he was “completely innocent” and the victim of “a co-ordinated witch hunt”.
Whatever the truth, the blame for Cleveland’s extraordinary crime levels cannot solely be placed at any individual’s door. If anything, the violence and theft that grips this part of the North East is the result of a perfect storm — one that has been made worse by the ineptitude of the local police force.
It is hardly surprising, for example, that Cleveland has two of the three areas with the highest rate of drug deaths in England — Middlesbrough and Hartlepool. Then there are its soaring levels of deprivation. Between 2015-15 and 2019-20, the North East saw the most dramatic rise in child poverty, up more than a third to 37%, while Middlesbrough has the highest proportion of people experiencing destitution in the country.
At the Genesis Project in the town’s Grove Hill housing estate, you can see the weary faces behind the figures. A sign on the wall of St Oswald’s church hall reads: “Some days you just have to create your own sunshine.” The volunteers are doing their best, catering to about 500 people a week arriving from across Teesside and queuing in all weathers for the basics of life: clothes, bedding, toiletries, fruit and vegetables.
Inside the church itself, a homeless man has just been given a makeshift bed. One distraught mother recently presented herself in tears because she could not afford to buy formula to feed her baby. And, since the removal of the £20-a-week uplift in Universal Credit in October, it is getting busier each week. “I feel a little bit aggrieved that we’re having to find the money to do it,” says project head Reverend Kath Dean, “because this is what I would consider to be a very poor church. We don’t have enough money to pay our gas bill, so in the winter we can’t afford to worship in the church. Why aren’t the authorities coming and helping?” She says she sees a connection between the poverty and the disturbing crime rate, and adds: “There are certain areas that I certainly wouldn’t walk through in the dark. I just know that there are certain areas in town that the police avoid as well.”
Cleveland is also the region with the highest rate for sexual offences in England and Wales, 3.7 per 1,000 people (its own former head of communications was sentenced for making indecent images of children in August). “It’s not necessarily a negative thing,” says Nicky Harkin, chief executive of Arch Teesside, a specialist sexual violence service, from her base in a converted house in the Middlesbrough suburbs. “We want people to come forward, we want people to report. Potentially that is a good thing that people feel that they can and that there are greater mechanisms for them to do that.”
But Harkin is also seeing “greater mental health needs, greater complexity in the cases that we support” and an average waiting time for cases to pass through the criminal justice system that has tripled — to three years — in less than a decade.
She wants to see long-term investment in vital services. “We need to be able to get on and do the job that we know is needed without having to, in the voluntary sector, scramble around year on year to try to sustain the provision that we’ve got.”
Simon Winlow, professor of criminology at Northumbria University, is generally wary of police crime data, which he believes can be “strewn with problems”.
But, he says: “That’s not to say such stats can’t offer some basic indications of what’s going on in the real world. Cleveland has some of the poorest postcodes in the country. Residents will tell you that public order crimes, violence, low-level quality-of-life crimes, drug dealing and so on are a standard feature of everyday life. Some crimes become so normalised that they’re scarcely worth remarking on. “There’s also a general absence of reasonably remunerative and secure jobs. Middlesbrough town centre is a wonderfully evocative place. The world has moved on and much of Middlesbrough has fallen out of history.”
The town’s Dorman Museum tries to put a positive spin on things. Yes, Middlesbrough was once such a centre of manufacturing that it provided the steel for the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the area’s heavy industries have now largely disappeared. “However, many new industries have developed, such as call centres,” says one display, while visitors are told the town has a bustling shopping centre.
Mark Horkan, founder of the White Feather Project, which delivers hundreds of emergency food and care packages a month, does not quite see it that way. “Everybody worked in the factories or the steelworks or on the railways. Things got privatised. There’s nothing for them to go into. You go down the town centre and it’s atrocious, the amount of shops that’s closed down because there’s no money.”
On the morning of our interview, Horkan discovered one of his units had been broken into and thieves had made off with treats for the children’s Christmas hampers. He is baffled why anyone would steal from a charity that gives its wares away. But he says he can see why penury inexorably leads to crime. “They’re going out there trying to fend for themselves to feed their families. That’s wrong, we know it’s wrong. But it’s happening.”
Cleveland’s residents have become inured to living with a failing police force, rising levels of deprivation and housing as ramshackle as the social safety net. And they are under no illusions: it is going to take hefty investment and long-term commitment to even begin to fix the problem. If levelling up is a soundbite in search of a policy, Britain’s wild west is a land of despair in pursuit of something more than nebulous promises.