It's hard to believe that the Spar store in Greystone, Co. Antrim - a store at the heart of a small community - could have much to fear from crime. But the peacefulness of the area was in tatters 20 months ago when a gang of youths started terrorising the store and its staff.

Store manager Laura McLean believes the problems began when two particular families moved into the area, and she's shocked at how quickly the situation deteriorated. "Before the trouble started, it was a good area. The agro started with youths hanging around the entrance, blocking the doorway and harassing customers as they came in. Then they were egging on younger children, convincing them to steal and run through the store."

The problem quickly grew more serious than shoplifting and the store was a target for armed robbery, incendiary devices and threats to staff. Says Laura: "Soon the staff's cars were targeted, graffiti was sprayed on the outside walls and in some cases employees were followed home from work."

Fearing for the safety of her staff, she called the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), but it wasn't a long-term solution. "We would call the police, but all they could really do was move them on for a short while and they'd be back again after an hour or so," she explains.

The business suffered a lot and, according to Laura, sales were down between £2,000 and £3,000 a week. Besides that, trying to ensure the safety of the store was taking the staff's attention away from other areas of the business. "Morale was low; people started to take time off work," she says. "Parents wouldn't let their kids work in the store. I ended up moving out of the area because my car window was smashed outside my home and muck was being left on my car by youths I had banned."

This proved the final straw for Laura. She approached the PSNI for more support and started compiling a log of everything that happened in and around the store. The PSNI agreed to visit daily, but Laura wanted to do more. She gathered together the PSNI, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) and Antrim Borough Council to form the Greystone Partnership, to work together on ways to make the area safer.

"The store is in a shopping complex so we arranged for the gates to be locked every night to stop people coming in," says Laura. "At the top of these gates, we put non-setting paint which made it difficult to climb over, and installed floodlights with motion sensors."

Antrim Borough Council erected signs around the area pointing out that on-the-spot fines of £50 would be issued to anyone caught drinking close to the store.

Laura also presented evidence to the NIHE to prove that local children were causing a major disturbance. The parents of these children were invited to a meeting by the NIHE and informed of what was going on. It was agreed that parents would be told if the anti-social behaviour continued and that if it didn't stop, the NIHE would relocate the family or terminate their contract. "Most parents had no idea what was going on and were quite shocked. Straightaway there were fewer children hanging around outside and staff felt safer. It forced the families to take more responsibility for their children and proved very successful."

Laura also made history by being responsible for the first anti-social behaviour order (ASBO) to be served in Antrim. One of the more troublesome members of the gang was served and, according to Laura, the tide soon turned. "Having the ASBO served made it all seem very real for the other members of the gang," she says. "Once the ringleader was served with an ASBO the others saw how serious we were and stopped their bad behaviour."

Since those black times Laura hasn't looked back, and it's all down to her determination to protect the business and her staff. It's no wonder she's an award-winner.
A positive influence
Laura was concerned that a lack of pride and community spirit among Greystone residents was a factor that had exacerbated the crimes that her and her staff had faced over the past year.

She felt that one of the reasons other children were so easily led was the lack of facilities in the area.

"There are no youth groups in the area - nothing for them to do - so they ended up drifting into the gang," she says. "To increase community spirit in the area we decided to get involved with the schools and offer them our support."

They offered prizes for school raffles, sponsored sports days and helped out with fundraising. On separate occasions the staff raised £1,056 for Macmillan Cancer Relief and £1,600 for the NSPCC.

Since the Greystone Partnership started up, the area has become virtually crime-free. "The Greystone area has been transformed from the run-down, litter-ridden estate to a clean and inviting community due to the clean-up operation," says Laura. "The local residents all seem to have greater pride in the area and are maintaining their environment more effectively now.

"Our staff are much happier in their job, staff turnover has decreased and recruitment is no longer an issue. And I'm proud to say that our sales have increased and our customer count is stronger than ever!"