“Don’t go down there, love. It’s not very nice.”
I had chatted to him for a little while, a cheerful, engaging police officer stationed at one of the road blocks near St Mary’s as the city of Cardiff welcomed the Championship League final in 2017. The city was colourful, vibrant, bursting at the seams with football fans who gathered from the city centre to the bay where various fan zones had been created. From the top of Bute Street, the police were guiding people to the bay through Lloyd George Avenue though some seemed to prefer the alternative route along Bute Street. It was to one of these people that the police officer unwittingly and innocently suggested that she shouldn’t go into Butetown. After all, surely, “it’s not very nice.” I smiled at him, and laughed a little “Thanks for that,” I said, “that’s where I live.”
Butetown, of course, like any community has a reputation – some good, some bad, some based on the past, some fair, some not so fair at all, and a far cry from the reality.
Once upon a time, as part of a thriving docksland, Butetown welcomed an array of people who were surrounded by heavy industry, and everything else that grows from people coming and going, from comfortable entrepreneurs chasing profits to the hard graft and gritty lives of working class people. A mix of cultures and nationalities bubbling away to create a rather unique place. As Industry began to fall away, the community changed. All communities change. Butetown is no different.
In a biography of a former Vicar of St Mary’s, affectionately known as Fr Jones of Cardiff (1907) one of his curates who arrived in the parish in 1873, wrote “There have been many changes since those days. It is to be hoped that Bute Street is improved. There were then parts of it along which it must have been a trial for a decent woman to pass.” Yes, perhaps – being what it was in the late nineteenth century, there were some “no go” areas, and perhaps parts of it could have been be described, to say the least, as “not very nice.”
And yet a community is as much a product of outside pressures and forces as it is of itself.
Bute Street today still receives a steady flow of visitors and tourists who use it as the route from city centre to bay, with its over-priced restaurants and copper domed home of the Millennium Centre and the slated steps of the Senedd. In the distance is the now much smaller working docks of Cardiff, often overlooked, and here in its place, the only vessels which push out are pleasure trips around the watery edges of the city.
In recent years – about two years ago, in fact – the community changed again. It’s not only tourists who pass along Bute Street but an almost constant stream of people, many from the homeless community, who come into the belly of the estate to make a quick deal. Heroin and crack cocaine are readily available on Bute Street. You don’t have to veer off the main thoroughfare to see it – it happens along the tourist trail, under your nose – or over your nose if you happen to be a child growing up in Butetown.
It’s not just those who stand on the street to deal either, with their intricate bobbing and weaving and slipping away from police patrols when they come. Cars come and go, park up, move on and return, pull into a street where they meet their customers, some of whom are invited into the passenger seat whilst others stand at the open window. It happens day and night. There is little sense of discretion, there appears no need to be cautious. Baseball bats and crowbars are hidden in bushes, behind garden walls, and knives are handled too.
In recent years, there has been a rise in rough sleepers, a rise in homelessness, an increase in clientele for those who deal in drugs – for both the disposable street sellers and drug runners, but also those above them, who make a more lucrative living from the misery of others.
We are assured by the police and others that much is being done – and there are several operations in place – but the process is, of course, slow, and resources are limited. Some residents have already left, others are leaving. The danger for us is that what we experience now, and what we have experienced for the last two years, will become or has become the norm – a familiar site for young and old, the landscape for growing up into the world, the place a child calls home.
The local community may seem lost, and there sometimes appears to be little communications between those in power who can make a difference and those whose lives are impacted by this rise in drug use. A local Neighbourhood Watch scheme patrols the streets each evening, tries to engage with young people who are dipping their toes into drug dealing, engages with their families – but it is tough. A local boxing club has been established by a local young man, trying to show and give young people a different way, a better way to live and move on, move away from drugs. Next week, through Citizens Cymru, whose Action Centre is at Loudoun Square, representatives from a number of local organisations will meet to explore how our community can be organised to address the problems.
It can take a while to make a difference. Seventeen months ago, we made a request to Cardiff Council to cut back the bushes at the top of Bute Street, 60 yards from a primary school. The bushes are a place populated by drug users who hide within the foliage, a hand’s reach from the street. Only now have we been promised that the work will begin, and this has possibly only been escalated by the proposed new Shipping Container Housing Development on the land opposite, a project of the Local Authority and being delivered through Cadwyn Housing Association.
Trying to engage with British Telecom to remove a problem public pay phone associated with drug dealing has been a struggle. Countless emails returned to them, asking for clear answers rather than a dodged response. But always, from the very outset, a very clear decision that “this phone-box will not be removed.” Profits are put before people, before the safety and needs of the local community they purport to serve in the first place.
Drugs are sold here for many reasons. We are, of course, so close to the city centre, and a few minutes’ walk away are three homeless hostels and other homeless services. The city centre grows up and out and around us, giving up the secret places of the city centre, awash with security cameras, and pushing people into Butetown where surveillance is more scant.
Drug dealing is, of course, a lucrative industry, but always at a cost. In Butetown 1 Ward, the area of which I write, over 33% of people have no qualifications. 36.4% of adults with no dependant children are not in employment, which is almost double that of the whole of the Butetown Ward. 7.6% of adults with dependant children are not in employment. All we can do is ask questions. Yes, we are told, much is being done by police and politicians, by Health Services and others, but some of us seek signs of how local people are involved in these outlooks and plans. The young, too, are easily influenced, easily bought and lured, and easily discarded too. But Butetown isn’t solely a product of the local pressures or of itself alone. Gangs from Liverpool and Manchester and other major cities make their way here and other areas of Cardiff, make use of the so called County Lines.
There are sporadic police raids on homes as officers make a dramatic entry into homes, carving up the front door, warrant in hand. We are assured there are covert investigations. We are also told that there are few reports or information coming from the people of Butetown itself, a result of fear perhaps? And yet, a Freedom of Information request to South Wales Police asking how many 101 or 999 calls had been made in Butetown for the period September 2016 to August 2017 threw up the statistics that there had been 698 calls made for Anti-social behaviour and 259 drug related calls.
I know from my own experience that some 101 operators actually register a ‘drugs related’ call as Anti-social behaviour – simply because there is no “proof” that drugs were involved, they say. And so the 259 calls regarding drugs can surely mean more – but to use their given statistics that still means about 5 a week during that particular period. This year, in August, 2018, 28 calls were made from St Mary’s Church alone – and so far this month to September 21st 2018 we have picked up the phone on 32 occasions – so far over 10 calls a week.
I love to see the city of Cardiff pushing above its weight, hosting international and national events that pull in punters from far and wide, who spend their money, invest in the city, experience what Cardiff has to offer. In August, just a few yards from Butetown, the National Eisteddfod basked in the sun, awash with people – and police too. During the first day of preparations, as road closures began, it took half an hour to drive the half mile stretch through Bute Street. After a few complaints were made, the road system was sorted. On that day, the open top tourist bus too had been diverted along Bute Street slowly making its 30 minute journey, offering tourists a new kind of Croeso and a new view of Cardiff down below them on the street where deals are quickly made.
The National Eisteddfod, the Championship League and so many other major sporting and cultural events – well, these come and go. Meanwhile, the very real and dangerous problem of drug dealing and drug use in Butetown remains. And there is no sign that it is ready to go away.