After 30 years with the Metropolitan Police Authority, David Fereday knows only too well the problems that can blight locations as busy as London's West End. As crime reduction manager at the Heart of London business improvement district (BID) he is determined to bring people together to prevent crime.
London's first BID, covering Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, was voted in by 71 per cent of businesses in the area last December. The scheme will raise £550,000 from 220 businesses to pay for extra services.
Its operator, the Heart of London Business Alliance, was keen to appoint someone to focus on crime reduction after businesses in the area highlighted safety and cleanliness as their two main concerns.
Fereday believes it is a definite bonus to have someone working directly in the role rather than relying on the police or Westminster City Council.
"When I introduce myself to people in the area, I make it very clear that I do not work for the police or the council, I work for the businesses.
Then they know that they are paying for me and if they do not talk to me they are giving me an easy time," he explains.
"This brings them out and they start talking to me. I can take things back to the police anonymously, so their voices get heard without them becoming a target. I can get a more unbiased view from business owners because I have the time and I do not have the many political burdens that the police and the local authority have weighing on their shoulders," Fereday maintains.
He contends that his role allows him to give information directly back to businesses because he can explain decisions and actions taken by the local authority and the police. "This removes a lot of suspicion and misinformation," he says. The approach will be put to the test in the period leading up to Christmas, with pubs granted late licences staying open into the small hours under the licensing reforms that came into effect this week.
Fereday admits that the effects of the reforms on central London cannot be predicted. Most licensees he has spoken to do not know themselves what the harvest will be, he intimates. "Last time the licensing laws were changed, lots of people argued that there would be huge problems. While there were problems in some areas, the changes have generally been accepted," he points out.
The change in the law might not make a huge difference in the West End, which has been operating as a late-night destination for many years already.
Several recent initiatives have curbed alcohol-related antisocial behaviour.
"We might find that other towns and cities look to us to see how we have been handling it," Fereday suggests.
Drinking on the streets has been banned and a permanent police pavilion has been installed in Piccadilly Circus. This provides a police presence that has already driven out many of the drug dealers who used to operate in the area. There is also an area where officers can conduct interviews to save them having to go all the way to the nearest police station.
"We want to prove to critics that the licensed trade is taking the matter seriously," says Fereday, who has started a Pubwatch scheme to bring together pubs, clubs, transport providers and late-night fast food outlets to discuss the night-time economy. He is also supervising the introduction of a radio link that allows businesses to warn others of potential trouble.
The system is being trialled by 40 businesses and the eventual aim is to have all 220 BID levy payers linked over the airwaves. The radios are being used by pubs and clubs to let each other know about possible flashpoints, such as groups of youths they have excluded from their premises. "The system links up to the police, the BID cleaning teams and city guardians.
Closed-circuit television can then monitor the location of the incident for evidence," explains Fereday.
Enabling all the businesses to listen in to everything that is going on in the area has added benefits, he claims. "It gives them an idea of what is really happening, so perhaps they will realise that the fear of crime they have is greater than the amount that actually happens. This is especially true at the moment, since the media will focus on alcohol-related crime," he maintains.
Reducing the fear of crime is one of Fereday's major tasks and much of this focuses on the state of the urban environment. "If you walk through here in the day and smell the urine, you wonder what on earth happened last night. These are day-to-day issues that people notice. Even if they are not threatening in themselves, they give the impression that there is crime in the area," he reflects.
He finds that one of the best ways he can help businesses and their customers is by taking time to listen to their problems, which gives him an acute insight into exactly what their main fears are. He can then pass this information on to the BID operations manager, who can ensure that street-based teams are carrying out work that matches the priorities of businesses paying for the BID.
"We are frequently told by the Home Office and the police what the priorities are. But when you meet the people who work and travel in the area, they often have different ideas," he observes. "The fear of crime is often down to the way an area looks. You might think that the major issues for people here are being robbed or beaten up, but in reality the concerns are about homeless people and litter and urine on the streets.
"I have the time to spend an hour or longer talking to a shop manager to try to get a real understanding of the issues, rather than just going in and getting a ten-minute bullet-point chat. The longer you spend with them, the more they realise that they can tell you about minor issues like litter that are actually creating more of a problem than the major issues that are supposed to be affecting us."
Fereday's biggest task is to make sure that doors open for him and that he can provide meaningful information to the police and the council. "The magic word is partnership," he concludes. "If I cannot work with the BID partners, I cannot do anything. The West End is the busiest and most exciting part of the capital and I am looking forward to the challenge."
CAREER DETAILS Age: 51. Family: Married with two children. Education: Hendon Training College, 1973. Career: Police officer, Willesden Green Police Station, 1973-81; sergeant, Kingston-upon-Thames, 1984-96; logistics and security officer, Scotland Yard, 1997-98; event planning officer, Scotland Yard, 1998-2004; crime reduction manager, Kingston-upon-Thames, 2004-05; crime reduction manager, Heart of London business improvement district, 2005 to date. Interests: Spending time with family.