It may be tempting fate to say so, but the blossom trees planted last year by the junior street wardens in Peterborough's city centre are still standing tall, albeit surrounded by sturdy fencing. It is not deer that are a danger to the trees, but vandals: the "yobs" who plague shopping areas and turn recreation grounds into messy, desolate places where parents dare not let their children play in case they stab themselves on hypodermic needles discarded by drug users.
Just such an area has been reclaimed in Bishops Road, when the street wardens enlisted the help of children from the local school, Bishop Creighton Primary. "No one was using this patch of ground because of anti-social behaviour from drunks and drug users," says Steve Mayes, street warden supervisor. "We wanted to clear it and reclaim it for the children from the nearby houses to use as a playground. It seemed a good idea to involve the children themselves in the project so they would understand why we were doing it, and through the children, the community would feel it belonged to them."
The project started in November 2003 when the team planted eight trees and more than 5,000 bulbs on land which had been cleared of overgrown shrubs and rubbish. Dressed in bright orange tabards and baseball caps, the 10 and 11-year-olds, who earned their status as junior street wardens through good behaviour at school, are out again, planting more bulbs and trees. Others, armed with grabbers, are litter-picking with enthusiasm, each crisp packet regarded as a prize. "I've found beer bottles, sweet wrappers and a football so far," says Paige Allen. "But there's not as much rubbish this time. I haven't found any needles, but if I do I won't touch it. I'll go and tell one of the wardens."
The relationship between the adult street wardens and the children is paramount to the success of the project. Steve and his team visit Bishop Creighton School regularly and talk about different issues, depending on the age group. "We start with talks about 'stranger danger', what to do if they get separated from their parents - we reunited more than 60 children with their parents in the city centre last year," Steve recounts. "Then we talk to them about the danger of finding needles and broken bottles, how to tell us about anything they find, and about road safety, and why it is important to take care of your community by not dropping litter or vandalising things."
The wardens take groups of children out for walks and point out graffiti, litter, fly-posting and vandalism. "The important thing is that they know how to contact us if anything bothers them," says Steve. "We have children calling us on our mobiles to say they have found some broken bottles or to report graffiti. One girl has even memorised our number in case of emergencies, and one lad rushed over on his bike to say he'd found a needle."
The success of the partnership between the adult and junior wardens has been recognised by ENCAMS, the Tidy Britain Group, and has won them first prize in the 2003 national competition for community projects.
The aim of the scheme is to encourage taking responsibility for their own community areas so that children, their parents and older brothers and sisters, feel they are worth looking after. Local senior citizens are also benefiting as the junior wardens have planted gladioli bulbs in their gardens. Now residents have also become involved and join the children on other gardening projects.
The headteacher at Bishop Creighton is enthusiastic about the scheme: "The children receive an enormous amount of pleasure from being street wardens, it really is considered a privilege. They like being recognised as an important part of the wider community, and although the changes in attitude are not obvious, I think it is part of the slow process of realising that it is good to give something back to your community."
Inevitably, not all reactions are supportive. There is sneering and occasional acts of vandalism. But the children and parents using the Bishops Road play area are quick to report anything out of line and it is dealt with promptly. Hopefully, the new trees will survive to blossom in springs to come.
Further information from Phillip Makepeace, City Centre Co-ordinator, Peterborough Tel: 01733 452280 Email: email@example.com