I’m just getting to the stage where, with baited breath and fingers crossed, I allow my nine-year-old to cross the street by himself. The thought that crossing at the green man, in broad daylight, he could be mown down by a motorcycle thief cuts me to the quick. But that’s the reality for my constituents in Muirhouse and has been so for three years – brought into the stark relief with the horrific collision between a motorbike and a ten-year-old boy last month.
Muirhouse often features near the top of the deprivation charts and has been neglected by the political classes for decades but it remains a dynamic and resilient community and I’m proud to represent it. Day and night, local residents bear witness to high-speed races and intimidating behaviour. As such the tragic hit-and-run on Ferry Road in August was not unexpected. It was only a matter of time, but it is the last straw.
The police have been doing everything they can to bring these offenders to justice. It’s not safe for them to give chase, given the risk involved, so they have to tackle the problem through “slow-time” evidence gathering and helicopter pursuit. They’ve got pretty good at getting their man (and it is a behaviour exclusively exhibited among young men), but for all the arrests made, frustratingly few custodial sentences are handed down. My colleague Ben McPherson MSP and I have made representations to the Lord Advocate and the courts about the need for tougher sentences in this regard. But the solution has to be about more than just the pursuit of justice.
We need to do more to get to those young people at school who aren’t yet involved in this activity but who look up to those who are, alerting them to the human cost of this behaviour and the implications for their life chances if they get caught.
We need to do more to offer those involved something better and more constructive to do with their time, with a major investment in detached youth work and facilities for young people in the area. I’ve been working with grant-making organisations like the Robertson Trust to bring funding to the table and have been met with warm reception.
We also need to do more to build awareness of this situation across the city, because it’s a city-wide problem. Whilst these bikes are being raced down Pennywell Road, they’re being stolen from homes and outside guest houses in Merchiston and Joppa. It’s also having a material impact on tourism, given the number of bikes stolen from holidaymakers. This is one issue on which I can honestly say there is unity across the political parties.
As such, this problem demands the attention and collaborative working of our city leaders and government ministers, our courts, our schools and our youth workers. We need to work with the community to foster a safe environment where they feel supported to share intelligence about the problem and to meet that help with proper respite, which comes in the form of safer streets and a confidence in the justice system.
I’ll say it again: Muirhouse is a dynamic and resilient community and I’m proud to be their MSP. They’re well served by residents’ groups and community activists but let down by a system which hasn’t got to grips with the activity they have to endure. Because for all the efforts of local police and the resilience of the community, this problem isn’t going away.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western