Making a safer, happier and more inclusive Chelmsford for everyone

May 4, 2021 12:00 AM
By Smita Rajesh

Smita Rajesh and Jude DeakinImagine a train pulls into Chelmsford station one evening. It's late, people are tired after a long day.

A white man leaves the train and starts walking home. He's thinking to himself about what he might have for dinner, listening to some music.

Next to him, a black man walks home. He knows people who've been stopped and searched by the police. Is he going to get to go straight home, or will he get held up, searched and questioned?

Behind them walks a lone woman. She's always tried to be careful and watch out for strangers, but since Sarah Everard's death she's been more careful. That group over there. The passageway between the shops. A movement in the shadows. Is that someone coming up behind?

These are the realities of many people's daily lives in our city. Different groups may share the same space, but can have very different experiences that others don't always see. But it's our job as Councillors to work to improve things for everyone. We want Chelmsford to be a city that's welcoming and can be enjoyed by everyone - and that means we need to listen to the different challenges different groups face.

Over the past two years, I've worked with my colleague Cllr Jude Deakin on the 'Meeting of Many Minds' project. We'd discovered that many people in Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities locally didn't feel they were being listened to by people in authority. So we went out, met with community leaders, and listened.

From this, and from the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted last year, we've heard many concerns that people didn't feel comfortable dealing with the police and felt that 'Stop and search' powers were being used excessively. The police policy is that stops must be based on information they've received, but it seemed that many weren't always feeling like this was the case. If you're stopped you have the right to ask why, so we've been educating the community on the right to question the police if you're stopped. And at the same time the local police have done dedicated 'stop and search' training with independent advisory boards, and have been trying to deliberately recruit to create a more diverse police force.

But there's so much more than just police. If Chelmsford is to be a welcoming city for all, as a Council we have a responsibility to ensure that anti-racism and opposition to specific prejudices such as islamophobia or antisemitism is taken seriously in all we do. We have strengthened Council policies on this, in spite of attempts to weaken it from the Conservatives and independent Councillors.

It's just not good enough for half the city's population to feel unsafe in public simply because of their gender. Ask your male friends how many of them have done personal safety training, or know someone who's been a victim of an attack - then ask your female friends. The difference is stark.

The response locally to the tragic death of Sarah Everard has been truly heartening. We've met with the Chief Inspector, Steve Scott-Haynes, and discussed what can be done to promote women's safety in and around Chelmsford. We're working together on how to set up 'safe spaces' locally and quick response services to help people when they really need it.

Again though, this can't just be something that the police do. We've worked with the 'SOS bus' scheme to provide help and support for late-night visitors to our city centre at weekends, and trained up volunteer students from Anglia Ruskin University to support people in need. We're talking to more charities and businesses, particularly 24 hour businesses such as fast food outlets, who might be able to offer support, and working with the J9 Safer Places initiative to give support to victims of domestic violence.

There's always more to do, and we're not stopping. I was personally disgusted to see that the Conservative government's new Police and Crime Bill offers more protection to statues than it does to women, and that it seeks to crack down on peaceful protest that's often the only way marginalized groups can make themselves heard. We need to ensure that all people have the ability to live fully and without fear in our community, and to have their concerns heard rather than their protest blocked. As your Lib Dem-led City Council, we want to hear from you on how we can offer you the help you need. That way we can all work together to create a safer, happier and more inclusive Chelmsford for everyone.