THERE has been a growing perception - is misconception - that Colchester is a no go zone at night.

Concerns are raised over the number of stabbings, drug taking and general violence, much of which is mirrored across the rest of the country.

But despite rise in crime, those in charge of public safety in Colchester believe they are making progress to make it a safe and welcoming place to live and visit.

Essex Police and Colchester Council now work closer than ever before with a host of other related bodies to form the Community Safety Partnership.

Figures show crime as a whole is up 15 per cent - less than the Essex average of 17 per cent - meaning there is still work to do.

But an introduction of a dedicated policing team in the town centre has hit street drinking and aggressive begging hard, with persistent offenders being helped and disrupted with enforcement action.

Colchester Council portfolio holder Mike Lilley (Lab) insists there is no room for complacency.

“The last couple of years have been incredibly busy,” he said.

“Crime may have gone up but there will always be crime and there will always be somebody wanting to commit crime.

“In terms of things like shoplifting we are working we are working with Colchester Business Against Crime and the shopping areas.

“Shops should take more responsibility when it comes to security – when something is stolen they phone the police thinking they are sitting around doing nothing and want them to zoom in and arrest the perpetrator.

“Those day have gone and we have to be realistic. The police have to prioritise and they need more help from everyone.

“They may get a call about shoplifting when they are dealing with a sexual assault.”

Of course, there is more to Colchester’s crime pattern than just the town centre and a new rural strategy for the force will be released next month.

There are plans for teams to spend more time in the smaller villages and towns in the borough.

Chief Insp Rob Huddleston, Colchester’s district commander, said: “People say they never see us in their village but we have people in custody who live round the corner from their house so we must have been there at some point.

“Unless we are driving through with blue lights and sirens you might not necessarily know we were there.”

He added: “Colchester is a safe place to live, work and visit.

“Our last public survey said 75 per cent of people said they were satisfied with the police and felt Colchester was a safe place to live.

“I get calls from people complaining that people are cycling on the pavement and I take that as a good sign because they are worried about that and not complaining they have been burgled.

“We genuinely want to make Colchester the safest place in Essex.”

However, Mr Huddleston has decided to scrap the Street Weeks scheme introduced by his predecessor Shaun Kane which would see seven days of intensive action in a chosen ward.

“We have to make the police a part of the community.

“We spent time at the Colchester United Fun Day and let the youngsters climb all over our car and wear our hats while we were talking to their parents and it allowed us to interact with communities we may not otherwise do.”

The police are also keen to interact with students at Essex University.

“The university is a really safe place but there are spikes in crime at certain times of the year,” Mr Huddleston added.

“Thousands of new students arrive in freshers week – mainly young people who have never lived away from home before.

“We are working with the university to spread the message around consumption of alcohol, relationships, consent and acceptable behaviour.”

Mr Huddleston said Essex Police’s specialist Op Raptor teams were regularly in Colchester aiming to disrupt drug dealing - even if their covert patrols meant the public may not be aware of them.

Cruel gangs are grooming youngsters to get involved as runners - some as young as 13. But Mr Huddleston said although his teams were determined to be tough on dealers, it would be unfair to criminalise youngsters who are being taken advantage of.

“A few years ago a drug dealer was a drug dealer,” he said,

“Now if a 13-year-old is arrested and is holding cash and a quantity of drugs it is unlikely he woke up that morning and just decided that was what he was going to do.

“There is some brilliant legislation – one of the best bits of legislation we have got – which says that, with some caveats, anyone who commits a crime while being exploited or as a victim of modern slavery is not guilty of that crime.”