When Stoke-on-Trent city council bosses decided to fund the extension of a successful city centre business crime initiative to six outlying areas, independent retailer Mark Dean knew it was an opportunity that couldn't be missed. Now his business is reaping the benefits of the scheme which provides retailers with 24-hour radio links to police, security staff and fellow businesses, as well as access to a comprehensive CCTV network and intelligence sharing procedure.
Mark, who runs a Select and Save store in the Bentilee area of the city, saw the scheme as real chance to crack down on shoplifters and other anti-social behaviour. He was one of the first retailers outside the city centre to sign up and is now, along with nine other businesses in the community retail centre in which his store is based, linked to a Storenet radio network.
Mark is able to share any information with the other participating businesses, which include the local
Co-op store, post office and bakery. He also has access to the city-wide scheme and a list and images of known shoplifters and other troublemakers.
The crime-fighting initiative, which has been running in the city centre for close to two decades, is split into two areas - a nightlife and daytime partnership - although for a number of businesses, including Mark's, there's often a crossover.
"It's a really good scheme to bring together the whole business community," says Mark, who owns the store with his wife Debs. "It's now easier to communicate with other businesses and we get a list of names and pictures of people who are on an exclusion list. The radio system connects us to all the other local shops on the same network, as well as the community security and city CCTV. The local police force can also hear what's going on. We have to pay a small amount to Storenet for the scheme and you have to be a member of the initiative to receive a radio. It doesn't cost a huge amount of money, though. There was a one-off charge of £50 for us to use the airwaves, and then it's just a minimal amount each week."
Mark explains that while the radios are not a 999 replacement and won't stop every offender from coming into his store, it gives businesses like his peace of mind. He says: "I like the fact that my staff have got a direct link to the security staff and local police. From my point of view, the scheme will mainly target shoplifters, but it can also come into its own for a number of other crimes. More and more people are joining in and the more who do, obviously the more successful it will be."
Mark believes the radios are likely to prove particularly useful to inform the authorities if there's an incident he doesn't wish to get directly involved in. A panic button device on the radios is another helpful feature, he says.
"The panic buttons on the radios are very worthwhile. If they are pressed the radio will stay transmitting even if the member of staff is in trouble and can't speak, or drops it. Someone can then respond and deal with the problem."
Mark and the other businesses all received full training on how to use their radios before the scheme was rolled out. Instruction included explaining the importance of three-way conversations. Mark says: "We were told how we need to communicate with one person, but then that we have to inform the rest of the network that a problem has been dealt with. We were also shown how to carry out radio checks and how the radios must not be misused by staff. I've since passed on what I've learnt to my team."
Mark says that so far in his 20 years at the store, he and his workers have thankfully had to deal only with minor nuisance and shoplifting. "The area used to be a lot worse," he says. "There's been a vast improvement over the past couple of years, though, along with a lot of regeneration. We're hoping the scheme will help us build on the area's new strengths.
"My staff have taken to the scheme well. On each shift there is always at least one member of staff who is confident in using the radios. The Storenet initiative should make the area a safer place for staff and shoppers and we're hoping things will stay on track."
Mark and his neighbours were invited to join the scheme by the city's business crime manager Julie Davies. She believes that once the scheme is up and running in all six areas it will be a huge benefit to local businesses.
She explains: "The first stage of the rollout was at Bentilee. It has been followed by Tunstall and Stoke and others are in the pipeline. Various businesses which do not fall into particular areas have also joined, such as eight Co-op stores. There are now close to 300 businesses taking part in Storenet.
"The membership will have a massive voice in attempts to have business crime taken seriously and will be able to create a true picture of what's really happening. It will end business isolation in terms of crime and disorder and be effective in reducing the effects of crime, including the fear of crime itself."
Georgina Conway, Tom's Bake Shop, Bentilee: "The scheme is going to benefit all the businesses in the area and our customers. We've got a new retail development here which we want to look after and keep crime-free. Unfortunately, there is always an element of people who will cause trouble, and the scheme will help everyone deal with them. I've been running my business for 25 years and there used to be problems a few years back, but not so much now. Everyone has put in a lot of work and the cameras certainly help."
Sue Trafford, Dawlish Drive Post Office, Bentilee: "About 15 years ago there were quite a few problems in the area, but everything was redeveloped a couple of years ago and things aren't as bad. We want to keep it that way and the more protection we businesses have, the better. The scheme works really well. We get pictures of troublemakers, which makes life easier, although we probably know most of the faces already! The radios give us peace of mind and we hope that the scheme will act as a real deterrent."