WALKING through St Botolph’s Priory used to be like running a gauntlet.

If you had parked up in Britannia car park and wanted to get to Colchester town centre then there was no chance you would stop and admire the historic ruins as you walked through.

You would get in and out as quickly as possible to avoid people boozing in the area and invariably shouting and acting up.

But that is not the case now - private security act as a deterrent making it a safe space for families and workers on lunch break.

This is part of a multi-agency approach called the Town Centre Action Plan (TCAP) has been in place for slightly more than a year.

The aim was - and still is - to crackdown on aggressive begging, anti-social behaviour, street drinking and drug taking in the town centre.

Essex Police, Colchester Council and Colchester Borough Homes hold regular meetings to discuss issues and trends and often go out on joint patrols.

I was fortunate enough to be invited out with PC Darrin Patrick from the Colchester Proactive Team - the town centre policing unit - town centre zone warden Matthew Chittock and rough sleeping outreach worker Heidi Mussett.

And the morning was a real eye opener as we stopped at various places which used to be hotspots for trouble.

There had been reports of someone sleeping in a stairwell in St Mary’s car park.

They were nowhere to be found but bedding had been stored in a salt bin and cardboard was nearby.

Heidi knows there are roughly 25 rough sleepers across the borough with a further 25 to 30 people in unsuitable housing - sofa surfing and the like.

Support is there for everyone in the borough and she seems to have a good relationship with everyone we meet who she has come into contact with and can arrange appointments to help them go about claiming benefits, helping them on the right path to secure housing.

Over an hour in the town centre, she knows that the dozen or so people she recognises just one or two will be sleeping rough that night.

At one point we come across a tent on a mound near St Botolph’s roundabout.

No-one is inside but Heidi leaves a note to say she has been there and within minutes receives a call from the owner.

As she is in close contact with zone warden Matthew - they agree he will not use his enforcement powers to remove the tent immediately but give 24 hours grace for them to make alternative arrangements.

Things would have been different had there been needles or a mess just yards away from a tennis court but all agencies involved are determined to help people rather than just rushing to punish people.

It is also important to note that when zone wardens gather up the belongings of rough sleepers, they are not hurled into a skip but kept in a secure location ready to be picked up at a later date.

The regular police presence has also led to people knowing they shouldn’t be drinking in public.

Matthew and PC Patrick say they now only have to look at people holding cans of lager before they tip them away.

There is still work to do - a fire exit in St John’s car park is supposed to remain locked at all times but somebody has broken in and signs of drug use are in the stairwell.

But statistics show things are improving. Between January and June this year 47 people were supported into accommodation and police, zone wardens and other partners spent 200 hours per week on average on patrol.


Colchester Council’s public safety boss Mike Lilley (Lab) said the current state of the town centre had been years in the making.

“The improvement work has been going on for two years – we had lots of complaints about aggressive begging, people being drunk in the streets and anti-social behaviour,” he said.

“ Some were being exploited. People would take money from them at the end of the day and give them drugs to feed their habit,” he explained.

“They targeted the vulnerable and took advantage of them.

“We think we have broken the back of it now.”

“We realised there was a problem which we needed to look at in a different way.

“We brought in the Public Space Protection Order and I can remember the headlines – people accused us of going backwards, being draconian and picking on the vulnerable and it was our colleagues as well as the opposition.

“We are thinking about extending it to New Town, the Old Heath Recreation Ground and Abbey Fields which would allow the zone wardens to use their powers there as well.

“But our priority has always been to help people first – getting them off the streets and signpost them to the help they need.

“TCAP was formed a year ago with the intention that enforcement would come if people refused help – you can’t force people if they don’t want to change.”

Government funding has been won to allow Colchester Borough Homes to work on the Housing First model and allows everything to be built on the foundation of having somewhere to live.

Mr Lilley said the long term ambition was to get more and more people housed and try to find a way to help people with specific alcohol issues.

He said the council were also looking at out-of-the-box schemes, including one in Middlesbrough where a clinic has been opened which allows people to inject themselves with drugs in a safe environment.

“They are trying to change the way things are done,” he said.

“We should have been working on this closely five years ago and there is an awful lot of organisations involved.”