A popular West Lothian park has become a no-go area for kids after months of deliberate fires set by mindless vandals.
The shocking behaviour is destroying Balbardie Park in Bathgate and scaring off children.
A shelter built for local youths was almost destroyed just this week after it was set ablaze.
There have been weeks of complaints about anti-social behaviour at the park.
And the latest blaze came on Monday night - just hours after councillors raised the issue with police and fire officers
Fire service Liaison officer Paul Harvey told the meeting that there had been 36 incidents of deliberate fires in the town in the last quarter compared to 11 for the same period the year before. Fifteen of those reports concerned burning wheelie bins.
The park, ironically named Balbardie Park of Peace, was popular with kids and dog walkers - but many youngsters are now afraid to use park facilities, including the recently installed pump track, because of the behaviour of teens who congregate there.
One parent told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) last night: “I have seen loads of weans put off by the mob, walking up then walking away again when they see the teens. I’ve also watched parents walk away with smaller kids because of the language being used.
“They really just need to take the shelter away all together or the very expensive pump track will end up wrecked.”
Giving details of Monday's blaze, a Scottish Fire and Rescue Service spokesperson said: “We were alerted at 5.57pm on Monday, 6 March to reports of a fire in the open in Bathgate.
“Operations Control mobilised one appliance to the town’s Balbardie Park, where firefighters were met by a fire which had taken hold of a wooden pallet.
“Firefighters extinguished the fire and worked to make the area safe before leaving the scene.
“There were no casualties.”
The message from both police and fire officers to the Bathgate Local Area Committee was that there are no quick or easy answers to solving the problems. The key is engagement with teens through the schools.
Chairing the local area Committee on Monday Councillor Harry Cartmill asked Sgt Mike Harte, the local community sergeant: “The stand out thing has been this dreadful business in Balbardie Park, I have had nothing but complaints about it.
“One of the issues that comes up constantly is this youth shelter. Does the shelter help or hinder that’s what is a key thing?“
Sgt Harte said: “I can see the point of the shelter. It’s an area for youths to gather. If the shelter wasn’t there it’s very likely that they would gather in another area. Having the shelter there at least you know where the kids are.
“From a policing perspective I think the issue is the general behaviour of the youths engaging in it. Not everyone who goes there will be causing anti-social behaviour. So it’s trying to identify who is causing the problems and dealing with them.”
Councillor Cartmil asked: “Where do you see a solution to this? It’s really causing a lot of upset in the community. Also Meadowpark as we had the issue of the pitch damaged by burning tyres?
Sgt Harte replied “If I had the answer to that I probably wouldn’t be in the police because I ‘d have the magic solution and be worth a fortune. Again from a police perspective we are there to try and engage with the youths if they’re willing to speak to the police.”
Sgt Harte said it was a wider community issue adding: “What we hear back from the kids is ‘we’ve got nowhere else to go’. In my day it was grab a football, go play football and tire yourself out.
“At present we don’t have a solution from a policing perspective.”
Sgt Harte added that the police would continue to engage with youths including through their peer group in the Police Scotland youth volunteers and through the schools. Going into schools to address the root cause.
Cllr Pauline Stafford asked when police carried out the patrols of Balbardie Park and was told it was fitted in with the local patrol as and when possible.
The schools approach was echoed by Cmdr Harvey from SFRS who had visited Bathgate Academy and other neighbouring high schools,and was planning to visit St Kent’s this week.
He said: “All schools are covered at least once a year at the moment our main issues are deliberate fire setting of wheelie bins so we will engage with the schools and speak to the pupils about that.”
Cmdr Harvey said he expected quarter four figures for deliberate fires would be similar. “It’s normally a small group of individuals repeating the same behaviour.The link officer had worked with the Academy and there have been some charges.”
He added: “The incidents relating to charges were linked to the town centre rather than Balbardie. The key to what we always try to do is to remind them of the consequences of having a fire engine tied up in Balbardie Park.”
Councillor Willie Boyle said: “This is a big concern, something we have been getting a lot of feedback from.”
An LDRS partner site, the West Lothian Courier has also recently highlighted the issue following complaints from the public. One man told the weekly paper/website: “The trees have been set alight, residents have lost count of the number of plastic bins and the sports centre bins that have been burned out.”
A West Lothian Council spokesperson stressed the local authority only has “limited powers” to deal with such issues.
He continued: “We are aware of ongoing issues involving anti-social behaviour in Balbardie Park of Peace in Bathgate and regularly work with our partners at Police Scotland and the Youth Action Project to try and address them.
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