Features, Interview

Drugs, gangs and why Norwich is a ‘great place to be’

As I step into Laura McGillivray’s office, a hint of confusion creeps into my mind. Here I am, standing in an undeniably modern office within a 1930s Art Deco building. I’ve just climbed a set of imposing, even majestic stairs but now am faced with pale yellow walls, filing cabinets and plug sockets.

McGillivray is the Chief Executive of Norwich City Council. She’s held the position for almost 14 years, and is also on the board of UEA council. For her, students are integral to helping Norwich thrive. “Students spend money in the city,” she tells me. “It keeps the city going. It keeps the city edgy.”

One challenge for the city is balancing the need for student accommodation with “an acute housing shortage”.

McGillivray explains that the situation has been aggravated by a waiting list for housing that is around 3,800 strong.

McGillivray tells me that the university looking to the city centre, as opposed to residential areas, “relieves some of the competition for housing”. But, she worries about whether accommodation  converted from offices for students will meet quality standards.

“It would appear students are prepared to pay for those prices,” she adds. “Certainly when I was a student we weren’t. But there you go.”

Students taking drugs is a given at many universities. A survey of around 2,800 students by the National Union of Students last year found 56% of respondents had used drugs.

Laura McGillivray chairs Norfolk’s Community Safety Partnership and the county lines subgroup. County lines is the name used for drug gangs’ expansion from large cities into smaller towns and cities.

McGillivray says county lines is “a big issue for the county as a whole, particularly for Norwich but also spreading out to Great Yarmouth and to some extent, King’s Lynn”. 

She adds, “Big centres of urban population is where drug dealing has become big business. Markets like London, Birmingham, Manchester get overheated. What happens is the dealers start to move out and try and find other markets and it’s called county lines because they use mobile phone “lines” to run their business in these other locations staying safe in their home territory. 

“County lines dealers prey on vulnerable young people, exploiting them with gifts before asking them to drop off a package. After they drop off one, the dealers will ask them to drop of another and they are caught.

“Then they will attack them and steal the package. And then you’re in the dealer’s debt. And so then they start to ensnare them more and more,” McGillivray tells me.

“They’re given mobile phones [with the] numbers of all the people who are the drug users and then that phone line is used as a contact. Then what you might get is cuckooing… somebody who takes up residence in a vulnerable older person’s home, takes over their home, uses that as a base for drug dealing.”

County lines may be a smaller problem in Norwich than in other towns and cities closer to London, but for McGillivray the issue is “big enough for us here”. McGillivray is overseeing the strategy to combat county lines, beyond the policing response including raising awareness in all public services as well as for example, those services such as taxi companies who may be unwittingly transporting the exploited young people and the drugs around the county, or staff at Norwich railway station, which may be a getting-off point in the city. Even so, county lines has brought violence with it. McGillivray says there aren’t yet local gangs competing on the scale seen in London. “What we have seen are people who’ve been injured, shot or stabbed as a result of county lines activity.”

Currently she is not aware whether county lines has spread to UEA. “That doesn’t mean it’s not there,” says McGillivray. “If there is drug taking there is drug supply. And some of that might be coming from other students or it might be coming from outside.”

McGillivray wants students to be aware of what they are taking and how it may affect them and others. She tells me “however they’re getting their drug supply somebody will have been exploited and somebody will be making a profit out of that.”

I ask her whether it’s ironic some students who claim to be do-gooders for the environment and social justice also take drugs. “Well you could say that,” she replies.

McGillivray is asking students to think about the origins of drugs. “Somewhere along the line people will be making money out of it and people will be exploited. The county lines are exploiting vulnerable young people here very close to home.

“They might be in care, they might be up from London, they might be from local families. If it’s not local people who are being exploited then it is likely to be people back in the countries that are supplying the drugs. 

“So if you are taking drugs – and I haven’t got a particular position on the morality of it, it’s an individual choice, although I wouldn’t encourage it – I would say that part of the issue is [you are] never quite sure what you’re taking. So there is a danger associated with that.”

However, her role as Chief Executive isn’t all about county lines. 

Battling climate change is another issue the city faces. McGillivray believes UEA’s climate research is “massively important for the city and for the world”.

Research conducted at UEA’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research has played a large role in advancing the way many people view climate change. 

For many years Norwich has also played its part, from declaring a climate emergency, to installing solar panels on the roof of City Hall.

“We’ve invested about £100m in our council housing stock so that the energy rating level is about C. 

“And what that does is it helps in terms of the environment but it also helps in terms of fuel poverty. We’ve been looking at biodiversity in our parks – we’ve got bee friendly planting. There’s a whole series of different things. 

“Recently we’ve had a lot more contact with the Tyndall Centre around what more could we be doing in terms of the city council’s activities.”

The city council launched its own white label energy company, Roar Power, last week.

“This is something that students can sign up to,” McGillivray tells me. “I would urge them to do [it].” The aim is to provide users with cheap gas and electricity from 100% renewable resources.

Yet fighting climate change isn’t only about taking direct action, it’s also about changing attitudes. 

“We’ve been promoting walking and cycling as opposed to car use,” McGillivray explains. One problem in Norwich that has driven many to cars over public transport is bus prices. 

This year First Bus has introduced stickers warning students from pretending to be younger to take advantage of young person fares. 

There are no student discounts on buses in Norwich. 

McGillivray believes bus prices are real issue for students but also for poorer residents in and around Norwich. 

“If you are a family who are struggling to make ends meet and you come into the city centre it costs you a lot of money. And when you come into the centre you probably can’t afford to do very much. The price of buses is a big issue for everybody to be honest. Should students have more of a discount than poor families? I don’t know. But certainly the bus fares here in the city I think are really quite high.” 

First Buses control their own fares, and it is the County Council, as opposed to the City that has a relationship with the company. Still, “I’d certainly love to see a reduction in prices,” McGillivray tells me.

But she is adamant the council doesn’t want a rift to open up between Norwich locals and students.

“The city is enhanced enormously by having students,” McGillivray tells me. “They really add to the feeling of the place.”

She adds, “Cities are a lot poorer if they don’t have good universities, and the university’s been getting better and better over the last 10, 20 years.”

McGillivray wants students to invest time in the city as well as in UEA, to “really get the most out of this place. 

“It’s a great place to be,” she tells me.

“You could start up your own business if you were here,” she adds. “Engage in voluntary and community activities. Go out and have a good time.”

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Chris Matthews

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January 2022
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