John McLellan: Ex-offenders can help get the message across

Early intervention can stop youngsters growing up to become career criminals. Picture: Emma Mitchell
Early intervention can stop youngsters growing up to become career criminals. Picture: Emma Mitchell
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Edinburgh police deserve congratulations for their successes in tackling break-ins since the reversal of the disastrous approach taken by Strathclyde’s finest to housebreaking in the Capital after the creation of Police Scotland.

But the revelation in this week’s Evening News that housebreaking in Edinburgh has fallen by a fifth in a year masks the extent to which officers face an ongoing struggle not only with young criminals whose respect for the law ranges from non-existent to scant, but also with a justice system which has run out of ways to deal with them.

An artist's impression of the winning design to replace the Ross Bandstand

An artist's impression of the winning design to replace the Ross Bandstand

As Detective Inspector Graham Grant told the News this week, the bulk of offences are committed by a relatively small group of people targeting houses for vehicles, and the number of incidents varies depending on their freedom to strike. Spikes in the number of offences often coincide with particular offenders being released from prison, he said. So much for rehabilitation.

But before prison? There is a long process before someone is actually sent to jail and only those facing the most serious charges are held on remand pending trial. As housebreaking usually doesn’t fall into this category, habitual offenders are free to carry on burgling while the charges against them stack up.

I spoke to officers in North-East Edinburgh recently and it is reassuring to hear their level of intelligence about housebreakers and car thieves is high. Not so reassuring is the reason; most perpetrators are regular customers who don’t give a hoot about the law, to the extent they are often picked up again not within days of arrest but within hours.

Minors are almost always freed despite lengthening criminal records. Secure accommodation is limited and until cases are ready for full hearings bail is the only option, usually to a home address where criminality is the norm. One recently re-offended within 40 minutes of a hearing.

While stealing cars for re-sale remains an issue, most of these offences are not being committed for economic gain or further criminal purpose like robbery or ram-raiding; the criminal empire-building or the need to feed a drug habit will come later.

Instead, officers are seeing a growing trend for boys below driving age stealing only to go joy-riding, with vehicles abandoned close to where the next break-in and car theft will take place in what is just a thrill-seeking game of bravado.

The success police are having is largely due to a combination of regular arrest and disruption of criminal activity combined with better home security. Domestic CCTV is every-where and clearly the chance of becoming a victim is reduced if there are obvious deterrents, but not everyone wants to live in a fortress. I spoke to an elderly lady in Duddingston who was adamant she did not want CCTV even though her home had been turned over twice in two years.

What, then, is the longer-term solution? The buzz-phrase for years has been early intervention and although it may have become tired through repetition it is no less relevant. Easy to say but difficult to do when attitudes at home are entrenched, but officers report encouraging signs from new programmes which match up current young offenders with former offenders who give them a glimpse of the unhappy future awaiting them. Rehabilitation can work.

A long way to go before Hobbit Hole work starts

A BIT like shoppers who go for the mid-priced option, the Ross Bandstand contest jurors have opted for a design which is not too revolutionary but not too safe either. But whether the so-called Hobbit Hole scheme from the American firm wHY is built exactly as it appears in the artist’s impressions is open to question.

In particular, the idea of opening subterranean viewing galleries directly beneath Princes Street looks very reminiscent of the Princes Street Galleries project which caused so much controversy 15 years ago it had to be abandoned.

Maybe the fact this is an arts project backed by Sandy McCall Smith and not a nasty retail development will make all the difference, but there is a long way to go before it gets the go-ahead, even though the project team expects to start construction work next year.

Publish and be damned..or not

When the Evening News was redesigned in 2005 we introduced the “Get it Sorted” feature in which we attempted to shame the authorities into fixing local irritations. It often seemed to become a battle of wills as weeks would pass before we could apply the “sorted” stamp to the offending pothole or whatever.

Well it’s déjà vu all over again, as they say, except this time the yawning gap is where the council coalition deal should be. It is almost two months since the general election allowed the SNP and Labour parties to consummate the marriage vows they took after the local election in May, yet they still can’t tell the public the basis of their partnership.

We know some in the Labour Group remain unhappy about the arrangement, so presumably there will be others in the wider membership and it is safe to assume this will be reflected amongst voters who backed Labour. Some of those voters will have done so on the basis of the local manifesto, so is it not reasonable for the Labour leadership to let their own voters know which compromises have been made?

As officials know, embarrassment is no reason to withhold information from the public so why can a political agreement with no commercial or data sensitivity not be published, especially when it is being cited in official council reports? And before anyone accuses the Conservative Group of sour grapes, the longer this goes on the more it plays into our hands. Get it sorted, chaps.

Good news will keep us moving

Last month’s UK Government announcement that 2900 civil servants will move into the New Waverley development was great news for the local economy, and another significant boost should come next year when the St James Centre moves from demolition to construction. More workers will arrive as the project nears completion in 2020, as they will to the Haymarket redevelopment where construction is also cranking up.

This week fears were raised that the end of big infrastructure projects like the Queensferry Crossing will leave a hole in the Scottish economy, but these schemes should keep Edinburgh moving. Let’s hope the City Deal also starts to deliver to maintain momentum.