'People don't say anything for fear of reprisals' - Life on estates hit by drug issues
PUBLISHED: 07:06 15 October 2019 | UPDATED: 09:02 16 October 2019
The problems caused by drugs on some of our estates have been well documented, especially in the last few years with the rise of county lines gangs operating in Norfolk. But what's it like living somewhere where drugs have caused problems? Investigations reporter Taz Ali visited estates in Dereham, King's Lynn, Norwich and Great Yarmouth to find out.
Annette* opens the door of her flat to reveal a golf club hidden behind it.
Her medication makes her slightly unsteady, but the grandmother clasps the grip in her slender hands.
The 71-year old has never played a round in her life, but said she keeps the club for protection on Heathgate in north Norwich where she has lived for 38 years.
She has seen how drugs have affected the lives of some of the 200 families living in the cream-coloured blocks.
"In the summer the drug dealers were out there like they were strawberry picking," she said.
"I have ran out and told some of them off.
"In the last five years it's got really bad because they all come from London."
Families have watched drug busts unfold at the estate from their kitchen windows, with the latest police raid five months ago.
Around two dozen police officers descended on a flat at Heathgate on May 17.
It formed part of Operation Gravity, an operation led by Norfolk police to crackdown on county lines drug dealing.
Police said at the time the activity in the grimy flat had been impacting the east and north of Norwich, but the dealers had scarpered before their arrival.
An 82-year-old man living close by, who did not want to be named, said: "It's been going on for quite some time. People don't say anything because of the reprisals.
"It was different when we were first here but now it's got worse and worse."
Annette has a bleak view of the future, seeing no end in sight for the drug problem.
"I don't think they [council and police] will find anything to end it," she said.
"They (the dealers) come back or someone replaces them."
Chief Inspector Sonia Humphreys described county lines - where dealers from London head to cities like Norwich - as a "continuous issue" which could only be dismantled by working with partner agencies and the community.
"If we are going to protect our local communities from these crimes we must have a united front," she said.
Drug deals are also a common sight for the people living at Northumberland Street in Heigham Grove.
The blocks of flats are scattered along the street between detached houses with neat driveways and tall trees. The street is quiet but for the sounds of children in the playgrounds of the nearby nursery and infant school.
But Northumberland Street has seen a number of drug dealers arrested and jailed.
In August this year, a man in his 20s was arrested after police seized £2,000 worth of heroin, crack cocaine and cannabis as well as £1,000 in cash during a drug bust.
Despite its problems, one woman who has been living in one of the block of flats, who did not want to be named, said the neighbourhood was generally nice.
"When I first moved in it was hideous, there were people coming and going all the time," she said. "We had a couple of raids."
She said the problem has improved over time and that the city council's housing officer visited just this week over concerns about anti-social behaviour.
"I feel the council is trying with the limited resources they have," she added.
But she said the drug problem persists.
"There is a known drug dealer [living here], he's been in and out of prison.
"It's quite scary because back in the day I might well have gone banging on their door and say 'oi turn it down', but now you think you can't go out and put some stuff in the bin because they are near your front door."
Councillor Kevin Maguire, cabinet member for Norwich City Council's safe city environment, described county lines as "a hugely complex issue" which needed the government to "step up" and provide proper funding to support police and local authorities.
"We will continue to work with partners to tackle the blight that is county lines while also supporting the most vulnerable in our communities."
Stefania Shearwood widens her eyes at the mention of Middlegate in Great Yarmouth.
The 67-year-old neighbourhood dog-walker lives around the corner in Nottingham Way.
"Watch your step - that's what I say to people who come around this way," she said.
The Middlegate estate and surrounding area was named as the most deprived area in Norfolk and among the 10pc most crime-ridden neighbourhoods in the country, in figures by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
A father in Nottingham Way, who did not want to be named, said: "The area is a nightmare. The alleyways between King Street and Tolhouse Street are used to deal drugs.
"I have now lived here now for five years and it's rapidly gone downhill."
Mrs Shearwood, who has been living in her flat for 19 years, said reports to the council have been "hopeless".
But Great Yarmouth councillor Andy Grant, chairman of the housing and neighbourhoods committee, said key frontline council staff have been trained as part of Operation Gravity.
He added: "As a landlord, the council works closely with tenants, the police and voluntary and statutory agencies to address issues of drug use and uses the range of powers available to it to take action to address anti-social behaviour related to drug use."
Just a five-minute walk away, 45-year-old John* walks through Greyfriars Way where he has rented a flat at the Old Fire Station Court.
He points to a used needle dumped in a moss-covered drain next to crumpled tin foil.
"The heroin is everywhere," he said.
The former fire station was converted into social housing in 2015 but in four years it has been riddled with drugs, said John.
"I have found needles pushed under my gate in the garden," he said. "The door is bashed in next door.
"You see the drug dealers come and go 10 at night until four in the morning.
"The drug problem has got a lot worse."
A spokesman for housing association Saffron Housing said: "We work closely alongside the police and councillors to help our customers. We will continue to support all relevant agencies to address drug issues in our communities."
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, a woman dressed in loungewear lumbers down the metal steps of a property at The Maltings and lights a cigarette.
She gives a puzzled look when asked about the drug problems at the estate.
"We keep ourselves to ourselves," she said.
Passers-by and neighbours in John Bates Close also shake their heads and dismiss the notion of any problems, before swiftly moving on.
Many were unaware of the drug raid in May 2017, which saw police storm a flat and arrest a 17-year-old man after he escaped through a window.
But one woman visiting a resident at The Maltings, who did not want to be named, had a different view.
"I think it's very well-known for drugs," she said, stating the person she is visiting wanted to move out for that reason.
"Even when you have a delivery they ask 'which block are you in? Are you in the rough block?'".
While no police figures are available for crimes in The Maltings, there were nine reports of drug-related crime reported in Matsell Way - just west of the estate - since September 2016 which led to one offender being jailed.
Just around the corner sits the Trussell Trust Foodbank and Wellspring Family Church.
Elder Jon Beardon said: "Having been at the church for 10 years, I would say the challenges around drug-related crime tends to come and go in waves.
"I imagine, for the residents, seeing the police coming in quite fast several times a week could create a sense of insecurity.
"My feeling is that there's high level of availability of drugs in the community and it's extremely accessible to young people - but it's not a Dereham phenomena."
A Breckland Council spokesperson said: "It is important that we take a joined-up approach to tackling this issue and our multi-agency Gravity initiative is seeking to raise awareness of the issue among local people and our public and private sector partners.
"We also recognise that people on the front lines of selling drugs as part of a county lines group are often some of the most vulnerable and so it is also important that we find ways to keep these people, who are often youngsters, safe and out of the influence of the drug gangs."
Three women rifle through clothing at the Fairstead community shop and take a moment to think about the problems in their neighbourhood.
"Many of my friends who I went to school with are all ex-smack heads," said one 40-year-old woman who has lived on the estate all her life.
"When you see that surgery on a Friday the queue for the methadone," she said as she shakes her head.
Her friend, who has been on the estate for 10 years, agrees. "I used to live next door to a drug dealer, Friday and Saturday nights were busy," she said. "He was actually really nice - they don't want trouble on their doorstep to stop the police coming there.
"It was the noise and constant coming and going of people, but they didn't scare me."
In 2011, a gang were jailed for more than 40 years after undercover police scored wraps of heroin and crack cocaine which had been supplied by dealers in London.
Some 30 police officers carried out early-morning raids at homes on the Fairstead estate after concerns were raised by the people living there.
Eight years later, the women said the area has improved and is "nowhere near as bad" as areas of south and north Lynn.
But with the looming threat of the Fairstead surgery closing, the women fear the problems could creep back.
"Taking away vital services at the estate doesn't help," they said. "You don't very often see the police now because of the budget cuts, they can't always be on the beat."
A 40-year-old mother-of-two in Pandora, off Winston Churchill Drive, said she felt the drug problems were getting worse.
"There are three drug dealers where I live," she said.
"It's not nice, there is a lot of damage around the area, like smashed windows, and Fairstead has a garden area where a lot of them hang around."
In Ploughman Road, a minute walk from Pandora, police dealt with 57 cases of anti-social behaviour and nine drug-related crimes in the last three years.
A spokesman for West Norfolk council said: "County lines have been minimal in west Norfolk, but we are aware of the threat and work closely with Police and other partners to deal with the issue in terms of the criminal element and also supporting vulnerable people. We also ensure that any intelligence is shared and actions jointly agreed."
* Names have been changed to protect their identities.
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