From ASB beacon to pocket park

How one Neighbourhood Watch scheme turned a disused layby into a community park with the help of an inspirational co-ordinator.

Bex Booker never imagined her journey to Neighbourhood Watch would begin with a Pitbull’s attempt to decapitate a Chihuahua.

The music DJ had not long moved to Walthamstow, east London, when she heard screaming outside her home. A lady, paralysed with fear, could do nothing as the Pitbull’s jaws enveloped the small dog’s entire head.

Bex, heavily pregnant at the time, stepped into the fray managing to pull both dogs’ apart. The Chihuahua survived the ordeal and the owner of the Pitbull was charged.

As Bex gave her statement to police officers, they suggested she start a Neighbourhood Watch scheme herself. The implication was clear – she would be perfect for the role.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Fast forward six years and the Salop Road Neighbourhood Watch scheme is thriving. They do not meet formally as a group often (“maybe once or twice a year”, says Bex) but they are all very active and in contact with one another regularly.

They use Whatsapp, a free group messaging service, to stay in touch and pass on information. “It’s a very accessible tool that everyone can use on their phone”, says Bex.

“For us, it’s a lot more useful for our people than Facebook or other social media sites because they don’t have to learn to use an entire new system or sign up to something. Practically everyone has a smart phone.”

The group recently unveiled a pocket park on the site of what used to be a disused layby – a beacon for the whole gamut of anti-social behaviour. Drug dealing, sex work, gangs, robbery, violence and fly-tipping among them.

Bex would often witness the criminal activity first hand arriving home in the early hours after work. Things came to a head when a boy, no older then 14, possibly younger, was mugged at knife point. “Just awful”, recalls Bex.

Working with Cllr Clare Coghill, now leader of Waltham Forest council, and the Enjoy Walking and Cycling in Waltham Forest Team, they managed to secure a £40,000 council grant to turn the place around.

Now instead of an eyesore dumping ground, they have an attractive wild flower park constantly in use by the neighbours. It is a hive of activity. They have regular communal planting, weeding and watering sessions where everyone in the neighbourhood joins in. They even have a kid’s scooter club.

All this positive activity has the added effect of deterring criminal activity. Everyone in the neighbourhood wins.

“It’s like living in a little village here”, says Bex. “It’s that sort of atmosphere. It doesn’t feel at all like you’re in the colossal city of London.”

The group’s next project, alongside Hannah Ford and Joana Niemeyer of art collective Invisible Numbers, is to regenerate a disused shop into a gallery displaying local artists’ work.

It’s like living in a little village here. It’s that sort of atmosphere.

Furthermore, Bex has some great ideas for engaging new people into schemes. “Shift workers could be great assets for the Neighbourhood Watch as they are out and about when crimes are more likely to take place.”

And she believes people who rent are just as passionate about their community as homeowners. “Renters, conversely, might be better placed to help out in Neighbourhood Watch areas because they can’t change much within their homes, so they might as well help change the place for the better from the outside”, she says.

Bex has managed to create a vibrant and positive Neighbourhood Watch scheme where the community is better connected, safer, stronger and more resilient to crime.

In other words, it is the Neighbourhood Watch ethos in action.