Deborah Coddington's Liberty Belle - Ray Mallon
I first heard about Ray Mallon from a friend who attended a London conference in April on reforming public services. "Mallon," he emailed me, "was one of the top cops in Middlesbrough and he's now the Mayor. Basically he was saying that crime rates are soaring because cutting crime is just not part of the agenda. There was no need for a lot of new legislation - there is plenty of opportunity under existing rules to lock people up, which is as I gather what he's spent a lot of time doing."
I decided to look up this Ray Mallon, and I find we could do with a few of him in New Zealand.
He became Mayor of Middlesbrough - a northern coastal city not far from Whitby, birthplace of Captain James Cook - a year ago in a landslide victory over the Labour machine. As former police chief of Middlesbrough and renowned for his 'zero tolerance for crime', Mallon, 47, nicknamed Robocop, was not without enemies. Suspended for four years during investigations into allegations of 'drugs for confessions', he was totally cleared of any wrongdoing. A female staff member who blew the whistle on a smear campaign against Mallon was recently awarded compensation for being sacked while defending her boss's honour.
Despite attracting sneering derision from Labour MP Peter Mandelson - "there is no room for solo candidates mired in controversy" - Mallon's 'Raising Hope, Alleviating Fear' campaign is now being eyed by another neighbouring MP, Tony Blair.
Mallon promised to cut crime by 15%. But he hasn't done that. In 12 months crime in this city of 145,000 people has fallen by 18%. Burglaries are down by 40%. There is no magic formula, just, as Mallon himself calls it, "common sense" - concentrating on the bread and butter issues.
He appointed 40 uniformed paid council wardens to patrol estates and neighbourhoods where crime is a problem. They remove abandoned cars, keep an eye on gangs of teenagers hanging around off-licences so they think twice about smashing a window, issue anti-social behaviour orders to youths who steal and burn cars and commit other offences. If necessary, leaflets are distributed with their photos, and information about their offences and why they are banned from certain areas.
Says Mallon's manager of community protection services; "This is not about naming and shaming. It's about giving confidence to communities, where people's lives have been made hell, and telling them we are responding to their concerns."
And rapid response is one of Mallon's trademarks. He is cracking down not just on crime, but also grime, and aggressive beggars. Mallon's drug action workers and litter wardens sweep into problem areas and clean them up. Mallon chairs weekly meetings where, drawing on his policing background, he updates his 'active intelligence mapping system'. Problems reported by the public are fed into a central computer at the town hall and mapped on to a plan of Middlesbrough, identifying trouble spots.
He also holds regular public meetings where little old ladies, who for years have been fobbed off by council staff ignoring their complaints, can talk to Mallon directly. "Recently one lady said she'd been complaining about the back alleys in her area for years. Filthy they were, rubbish everywhere. I could say, 'Madam, consider it done in a week's time.' And it was."
Even the deputy mayor and an old Labour stalwart, Bob Brady, is now on side as the council are united against a common enemy - the desecration of their city. Brady recently told The Guardian: "I would defy anyone to come to the board and spot who is the Tory. The mayor has a style of his own and has decided to tackle the things that affect everyday lives - litter, vandalism, graffiti, anti-social behaviour. That means concentrating not just on the symptoms of crime but the environment that causes it."
Tough cops are not without controversy - look at Auckland's legendary Spike Hughes, a man whom even the worst criminals feared and who the media often accused of 'persuading' confessions from suspects. But to those who know him, Hughes is chivalrous - a gentleman who once swiftly moved to protect this damsel distressed at being threatened by a renowned violent offender.
There are more Spike Hughes in New Zealand. They might read this and get ideas. Then perhaps we won't have to read stories like the one in the North Shore Times Advertiser last week about bogus council workers fleecing pensioners out of hundreds of dollars in return for 'pruning' their trees. The council's response?
Councillor Gary Holmes, chair of the regulatory and hearings committee, is worried the men are ruining the Council's reputation: "We take the protection of our trees very seriously." A neighbourhood watch coordinator advised the elderly to 'just turn them away'.
Excuse me? One woman was robbed of $800 the day after her husband died, when these thugs turned up saying her husband had hired them. But the local Council's worried about its trees and its reputation; and a grieving widow is expected to chase extortion gangs off her property? No wonder New Zealand crime is out of control.
Robocop - where are you when we need you?
Yours in liberty,
- Liberty Belle is a column from Deborah Coddington, Member of Parliament for ACT New Zealand.