THOUGHTLESS Grinches attempted to ruin Wokingham’s Christmas by vandalising the town’s Christmas tree – and the damage was so severe that the festive lights are not repairable this side of the Twelfth Night.
As a result of a catalogue of crime during the season of peace and goodwill, Wokingham’s town and borough councils have said they will now consider installing CCTV cameras to ensure the town centre remains a safe place to be.
Overnight on Christmas Day, the “disgusting” vandals broke down the protective fencing around the tree on the corner of Market Place, cut through lighting and damaged decorations that had been created by school children from across the borough.
Town councillors gave up their Boxing Day to make the Christmas tree safe, only to see their hard work trashed again the following night, as vandals returned to destroy almost all of the school’s decorations left behind in the first attack.
It is thought that around £3,000 worth of damage – the cost of replacement lights and installing them – was caused by the vandals who attempted to steal the town’s Christmas.
But the town councillors were not to be defeated: with help from local businesses including Stitchery Do, they created some new, simple decorations and added them to the tree so that there were still festive adornments ahead of Sunday’s twelfth night.
And the attack is just one of several incidents that have taken place across the town centre during Christmas week.
Businesses have reported damage to their windows: Berkshire Windows in Denmark Street had paint thrown all over one of its displays, while The Red Lion had a window smashed in. A similar incident took place at Wokingham Methodist Church’s Café Mosaic on Sunday, December 30.
And in Norreys, vandals smashed in a spate of car windscreens in a number of roads, leaving residents a sour taste to their new year celebrations.
There has also been another late night assault in Elms Road – the third such incident in Wokingham’s town centre during December.
Cllr Imogen Shepherd-Dubey was one of our town councillors who arrived at the scene of the Christmas tree on Boxing Day in a bid to fix the damage.
She said: “Fences were broken, Christmas decoration have been ruined, every single chain of lights have been cut and the transformer was pulled out.
“My thanks go to those who came out to make the tree safe and tidy it up: Cllrs Colin George (who is an electrician), Tony Lack, Lynn Forbes, Dave Davies. I also came out.”
She added: “The bill for this act of vandalism is expected to cost residents of the town thousands as we need to buy new lights.”
In the wake of the attacks, residents took to social media to demand more police patrols and CCTV to be installed in the town centre.
One said: “Wokingham is getting worse, where [is] all the CCTV?”
Another asked: “Where are the police?”
A third made an appeal to our new knight: local MP Sir John Redwood. They said: “Come on John Redwood, do something for our town, we all stood behind you, now do something for us please.”
Speaking to The Wokingham Paper, Cllr Dave Davies, the leader of Wokingham Town Council, said: “Over the Christmas we suffered acts of mindless vandalism to the town Christmas Tree, as well as smashing of a window of The Red Lion, daubing of paint on Berkshire Windows and many other incidents of anti-social behaviour.
“I am appalled that vandals feel that they can perform these awful acts and do appeal for anyone with any information on these events to forward it to us or the police quoting 43180392496.
“I understand the concern that this causes our residents and following discussions with Cllr Julian McGhee-Sumner, the leader of Wokingham Borough Council, we will be working in the New Year to identify what can and should be done as two councils working together, in providing CCTV cover in the town centre.
“Historically, this was removed due to the costs of maintaining and monitoring, and the quality of the images, but we will look at all options to provide value for our constituents and hope to be able to expand on the CCTV that the Town Council currently operate to prevent graffiti.
“In addition we will be challenging the police to increase their presence in the town as a whole and work with them to understand and address the cause of these incidents.”
And despite the dismay and misery that the thoughtless vandals have caused the town during Christmas, Cllr Davies said that residents’ backing has been a real encouragement to him.
He said: “More than anything I have been moved by the support shown by the Town against these senseless acts, and the efforts by public and councillors in doing what can be to not let them win by fixing the fences and mending the tree.
“Despite this mindless vandalism it is important to remember that Wokingham remains a great place to live. We are still a market town, albeit one that had grown in recent years in part because of this appeal.
“The tree now stands covered in festive ribbons donated by local business and hung by the many Councillors who were able to help following the last attack, and I think it looks rather beautiful.
“As a town we are stronger than any vandal, and we will not be bowed by this and we WILL be back next year with an even better tree.”
And Wokingham Borough Council has pledged its support to working with the town council.
Cllr Philip Mirfin, executive member for regeneration, said: “It was incredibly disappointing to hear that the Christmas tree in Wokingham town centre’s Market Place had been so mindlessly vandalised, not just once but twice.
“We will continue to work with the police to prevent any anti-social behaviour and to keep the Wokingham borough a safe place to live.”
Liberal Democrat leader for Wokingham borough, Cllr Lindsay Ferris, was also disappointed with the attacks and called for action.
He said: “I feel there is an increased lack of respect occurring. Over the past two to three years I have noticed an increase in such behaviour. Our local police is now a very thin line indeed and those officers remaining need our full support.
“However the chances of people getting caught has significantly dropped over this period and therefore an increasing number of people feel they can now get away with their actions. This has to be reversed and reversed now.
“We have to improve the chances of people being caught. CCTV has its place in this, but it can only be part of the solution, a properly funded and supported police force is the best way forward. The cuts that have taken place have been too deep.
“As councillors we are often told, ‘We have not seen a police officer in months’. This is simply not good enough. We deserve better.”
This was a view echoed by Labour group leader Cllr Andy Croy.
He said: “There is never an excuse for this sort of behaviour and the only people responsible are the criminals who did it.
“People rightly expect suspects to be apprehended, tried and, if guilty, punished according to law.
“Without tip-offs from the public direct to the police there is almost zero chance of this happening and an even lower chance of deterrence of future incidents by patrolling.
“Tory and Lib Dem austerity have slashed police funding to crisis levels. The Thames Valley Police is short of hundreds of PCSOs and police officers. This is a result of deliberate funding cuts, it is not an accident.
“Wokingham Town area has just five Police Officers and five PCSOs. Given the demands of varied shift patterns, holidays and illness it is easy to see how one incident can quickly swallow all available resources.
“Shockingly, more and more officers are having to reply on a second job in order to make ends meet. This is how bad the pay and funding crisis has become.
“In the meantime, the recently mooted increase in police funding, by way of an increase in Council Tax payments, is simply a way of shifting the cost of police funding from progressive taxes to the most regressive and unfair of taxes – Council Tax.
“Only a Labour government will put 10,000 police back on the streets and make our town safer.”
Thames Valley Police’s Neighbourhood Sergeant Emma Read, of Loddon Valley station, said the force was committed to policing Wokingham: “We are aware of the incidents that have occurred in and around the town centre of Wokingham.
“As a neighbourhood team, we would like to reassure the public that high visibility patrols are ongoing, and we will deal with anti-social behaviour or criminal acts robustly and carry out thorough investigations.
“We would like to remind residents to be vigilant and to report any such incidents to the police so they can be dealt with appropriately.
“If anyone has any information regarding such incidents, we urge you to make contact with the neighbourhood team on either 101 or firstname.lastname@example.org.”