11 OCTOBER 2003, Page 18

Town and out

In a single generation, says David Lovilbond, drugs and drink have turned Devizes into a place of incoherent rage In better days the world left Wiltshire alone. Blighted by neither coastline nor famous hills, the county was merely on the way to somewhere else. In the heart of this fortunate backwater, Devizes was the very archetype of an English market town. There is a castle, a square big enough to have burned at least one Protestant martyr in, and fine curving terraces of Georgian houses paid for by Wiltshire's fat comlands.

It is many years since yeoman farming gave Devizes a gentlemanly and prosperous air, but the faded little town was comfortable with its long decline. One by one the 37 pubs closed down, the barracks went, the assizes were lost, the squires, broken by taxes, sold up their town houses and became extinct, market day was turned over to tea towels and fruit scones, and Devizes found itself quaint —a sleepy rural place innocent in its assurance of safety.

Then came the drugs. Easing in with the 1960s hippies and New Age nails who crowded Wiltshire's numinous landscapes in search of invented gods, cannabis was the harbinger of a traumatic cultural shift that has transformed the town from Barbara Pyrn to NITD Blue in a single generation. Not that drugs were the only catalyst. In the dogdays between giros, cheap drink supplemented the dope, and by the time I got to know Devizes 20 years ago the cider heads had already established their lairs of vomit and scabby dogs by Viscount Sidniouth's fountain. But it is only recently that suicidal drunkenness and the ubiquity of hard drugs associated with inner cities have appeared in the town and made street crime and even gang fights commonplace.

The Home Office lists Wiltshire as the second safest county in England, despite an increase of 20 per cent in reported crime over the past eight years. In Devizes, though, police figures show an astonishing 77 per cent growth in crime over the same period. Lawlessness on this scale means discarded hypodermics by the swings and blinged-up youths in fast cars parked nose to tail in the square, windows down and trading. It means an old red bus camped behind the town asylum, open for business and supplying the schizophrenics with the pills to keep them mad. It is shop windows smashed on Saturday nights and the town centre a no-go area every night. It is mini riots outside the takeaways at closing time, and swirling groups of boozed-up teenagers in broad daylight shouting and threatening anyone who comes near. It is beggars at the cash-dispensers, mugged tourists, burnt-out cars, blizzards of litter, bikes ridden unchecked through pedestrians and the stink of piss in the alleys. It means CCTV cameras at every corner, and never meeting a stranger's eye. And for me it means that my local, the ancient and once wonderful pub where General Wolfe recruited soldiers for his victorious campaigns in Canada, is frequently infested by redundant cannon fodder; hopeless oldyoung men gruesomely decorated with purple tattoos, uniformed in combats, woolly hats and `hoodies', braying like donkeys and looking for trouble. It has become a place where extreme violence is only an unwise glance away; a commotion of running feet, flailing fists and a victim staggering, his head a red cap of blood.

There are the usual initiatives in response to the gathering chaos. The police mounted Operation Ardent to remove class-A dealers from the streets and, after months of planning, nine low-level players were convicted. But there was no Mr Big, and the gaps left by the minnows simply created opportunities for others. New 'antisocial behaviour orders' are promised to chase the worst yahoos from the off-licences, and every lamppost in the town centre is decorated with little pictures of beer pots and imprecations against the evils of public drinking. But what most of us would like to see is a dear old bobby on the beat once in a while.

'The police are not dealing with the problem of drugs and drink in the town very well,' says Councillor Tony Duck, former chairman of the Constituency Conservative Association. 'And I'm not talking about policemen on a Saturday night, but a failure of management.' Councillor Duck left the party to set up Devizes Guardians in response to the weakness of local Tory policies for the town. He says that the sight of 12year-old children drinking in the streets has become unremarkable and describes town pubs as resembling Dante's vision of Hell'. He mentions poor parenting as a cause, but says that the root problem is local authority Kennet District Council's housing policy. 'Kennet recognised that the area's house prices were rising and decided that 50 per Cent of all new houses had to be affordable housing. Eighty-seven per cent of new houses in Kennet are coming to Devizes, which represents a disproportionate amount of social housing and a disproportionate percentage of socially inadequate people.'

The town has grown by more than a third in the past ten years, and the council set up a Community Safety Partnership, which brings together the police and all the usual action teams and pressure groups to muse on the town's descent into anarchy. Community development manager Alan Houghton is less than sanguine about the Partnership's prospects. 'The deferential attitude of the working class has gone. Everyone, through television, has an idea of how they want to be treated, and if they don't get what they want they get angry. There is a real local need for social housing, but how many of the houses we build are going to local people? We have people coming in from outside who do not necessarily expect to get a job, but park up in their flats and take advantage of all the benefits. I see people walking round town now who I wouldn't expect to see in an English market town and I wonder why they are here.'

As Devizes slips into a Hogarthian nightmare, some sort of exposition might be of more use than another capital-lettered, Guardian-advertised initiative. Housing policy aside, employment is not an issue: jobs are low-paid, but unemployment at 2 per cent is well below the national average. There isn't much in the way of entertainment, hut then apart from a little weekend squaddie-bashing there never has been. As Alan Houghton implied, the expectations of the ill-educated have been stimulated to the point where ambition far exceeds ability; and there is something in that. I think, though, there may be another reason.

Like everywhere else in England, Devizes has lost its homogeneity. The pervasive blight of multiculturalism has, for the young especially, killed off any feeling of a personal relationship with their surroundings. Children at the local comp may have an excellent grasp of England's pernicious role in the slave trade and know how it felt to be an oppressed Muslim in British India, but they won't have a clue that Alfred the Great stopped the Viking hordes just down the road, or that the hill they see from their classroom windows is a Civil War battleground. The youths hanging round the fountain, or drifting listlessly from chip shop to pub to street corner, have no sense of ownership of the history that made their town. They have lost the instinct of belonging that their grandparents took for granted; the connection between people and place has been broken.

In Devizes, my town, young people cannot respect what they are not allowed to understand. They occupy the streets, filled with incoherent rage, disaffected, culturally and politically disfranchised, and turn to their barbarisms for bleak consolation because they can find no other way.