LESLEY Richards was standing outside the building society she manages in Llanelli when she got talking to a local businessman.
The conversation went from the branch needing a coat of paint to Llanelli itself.
“I said: ‘Don’t get me started about the town’ and he said: ‘Why don’t you do something about it?’” says Mrs Richards.
That was just over two years ago and since then Mrs Richards has been on a mission to make Llanelli a safer and more welcoming place.
She became a director of business support group Ymlaen Llanelli in March 2017 and started chairing it eight months later.
She spoke to 70 traders in the town, had a meeting with Carmarthenshire Council leader Emlyn Dole, requested town centre crime figures from Dyfed-Powys Police – and then linked up with chief constable Mark Collins.
“I took him around the town and told him the issues we were having,” says Mrs Richards.
“He was quite surprised – I was quite blunt.”
Asked for examples of those issues, she replies: “Managers of some shops were not happy for female staff to be working late on their own.
“We had security vans refusing to come into the town centre to deal with the banks. The impact was massive. Police vans and cars were outside my bank daily.”
She adds: “Seeing someone dragged up an alleyway was the norm. That was the point the town was getting to. It was in decline.”
Mrs Richards recalls leaving an event at Llanelly House, Bridge Street, at around 8pm one evening when a group of teenagers approached.
“One of the jumped right in front of me – up to my face,” she says. “I told him to get out of my way.”
A few seconds later she heard a bang.
“They were throwing rocks at windows,” she says. “They took out 17 panes of glass.”
Last September the first new batch of CCTV cameras were installed in the town.
A CCTV rollout across towns and communities in the Dyfed-Powys force area was a key election pledge of police and crime commissioner Dafydd Llywelyn.
Mrs Richards says there are 19 cameras in Llanelli now, with another four on their way.
She firmly believes the ones previously in place should never have been removed.
And for the last year or so the town centre has had a dedicated police officer and three community support officers.
Mrs Richards says: “The police have had massive budget cuts – there is only so much they can do.” But she says the town’s PC, Aled Davies, has made “a hell of a difference”.
She says: “I would go into shops and say: ‘Have you met Aled?’ If they said no I would text him and he would go and introduce himself.”
Mrs Richards has contacted the 70 traders she originally spoke to – and interviewed a further 142 businesses in the town.
“They say things are much better,” she says. “They are are not afraid to come into work. They are happy.”
Ymlaen Llanelli, meanwhile, has organised a string of community events – from an 80s festival, open air cinema, superhero day, and the Great Llanelli Get Together. More are planned in the coming months.
“The best thing is when you go to one of the events and you see people laughing and having a drink – you get a sense of satisfaction,” she says. “You know the hard work you put in is working.”
Mrs Richards, who manages the town’s Nationwide branch in Stepney Street, concedes the town centre still has a few issues.
“They won’t be there much longer,” she says. “It’s all in hand.”
She gives me quite a searching look.
“I don’t take any cr*p in meetings – I know what I want,” she says.
The 52-year-old, who lives in Ystradgynlais, doesn’t expect everyone’s minds to change overnight. But she feels many people are on a “downer” about Llanelli.
“People need to understand it’s getting better,” she says. “The crime figures are coming down.” According to the police website www.police.co.uk there were 518 and 511 incidents in May and June respectively last year in the wider Llanelli town ward. There were 452 and 371 incidents in the same two months this year.
The county council has spent £4.5m buying and renovating properties in Llanelli and key sites are being offered for development. The Theatre Elli building in Station Road is being revamped into a cinema and live music venue.
A local development order, enabling businesses and property owners to make some changes without planning permission, is also in operation to help fill vacant units.
Mrs Richards points to this team effort and says: “Anything that fetches people into town has got to be a good thing.”
She first worked in Llanelli 10 years ago when she covered for a colleague for a few days. “I thought it was a fabulous town,” she says. She returned on a full-time basis five years ago and was dismayed at the difference. “It had changed a lot,” she says.
But now her optimism has returned. “Everybody is working so hard to make the town better,” says Mrs Richards. “We are getting there.”
Llanelli police inspector Justin Evans also endorses the CCTV rollout in the town. It’s a valuable tool to investigate and it’s a deterrent,” he says. “We use it all the time. It’s a massive plus.”
The inspector says he has not seen evidence of issues being displaced elsewhere. Removing the old cameras, he adds, “was always going to impact on crime”.
Mr Evans says policing cuts in recent years prompted the force to re-examine its priorities. The designated town centre team, featuring PC Davies, was reconstituted.
“We do not pull away the town centre PC at all,” says Mr Evans.
And there is back-up from the town’s other neighbourhood policing teams.
Llanelli has hit the headlines in recent months due to high-profile cases involving organised crime groups from outside the area supplying Class A drugs to the town. In March last year 28 men and women were put behind bars for supplying and dealing large quantities of heroin in Llanelli and other Class A drugs in Aberystwyth. During the three-and-a-half year period the case covered 38 people in Carmarthenshire suffered heroin-related deaths. It was the most high-profile, but not the only, such “county lines” case.
Last month commissioner Mr Llywelyn said he believed county lines activity in the force area had peaked and Mr Evans said he was not aware of organised crime gangs muscling in on the town at present.
“Our priority in Llanelli will always be targeting drugs,” says the inspector. “Llanelli will never be drugs-free – the same as every working class town in Wales.”
As well as enforcement he says officers signpost offenders to agencies which can help them break their addiction and also work in the probation service.
“There’s no point just banging them up all the time,” he says.
Mr Evans has worked as a constable, sergeant and inspector in Llanelli for 20 years except for a couple of stints away. Crime and drug trends in that time, he says, have changed.
“Ten years ago Llanelli was a booming night-time economy,” he says. “You would have a lot of people out. You still have these numbers out late but they used to queue to get into the pub at 8pm.”
Mr Evans says anti-social behaviour tends to increase in the summer while there is a pre-Christmas shoplifting spike in November and December.
“We counteract this by putting operations in place,” he says. “We get to know who our offenders are.”
Officers regularly patrol town centre areas which are designated no-drinking zones, he says, and violent crime and night-time economy offences have gone down. But he accepts that seeing someone “zombified” on a substance like spice is “not nice” for the public.
He adds: “Mental health issues are a real drain – you can have a couple of officers sitting with with someone in hospital for hours.”
Police are also dealing with more online offences such as grooming, bullying, and fraud. “Times have changed,” says the 48-year-old.
Like many in his profession Mr Evans is aware of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pledge to recruit an extra 20,000 policeman and women in England and Wales. “Great – that would only be good news for policing in general,” he says.
Like every town and city in the UK the retail sector in Llanelli faces challenges, especially with Parc Trostre thriving on the outskirts of town.
Wilko, in the town’s St Elli Centre, will close its doors at the end of September but will keep its Parc Trostre store.
Llanelli AM Lee Waters described the closure announcement as “a blow for the town”.
David Thomas, of Birdie’s Second Hand Golf, Cowell Street, approves of the CCTV cameras and says business is ticking over. But he is worried about the effect of Wilko’s closure.
Asked how to encourage more footfall to Llanelli he says: “Put it back the old way. It was a busy place, especially on Thursday – market day.”
Tal Einon, the owner of Italian restaurant Altalia, reckons Llanelli should focus more on the growing tourism trade. “Retail is hard hit,” he says. “I don’t know how to fill shops. It’s the trillion dollar question.”
But he says his Stepney Street business is doing fine and that crime didn’t seem any worse than when he started the business 18 years ago. “We’ve never had a problem,” he says.
Further along the road jewellery shop owner Leslie Gilbert says a camera is needed to cover the acade he is based in.
Mr Gilbert, who moved from Kingston-upon-Thames, near London, 16 months ago, believes Llanelli has problems. He says drug dealing regularly takes place in an area at the rear of the arcade and that a frightened woman asked him last week to accompany her past a group of drug users.
“They scream, they fight – you never know what they’re going to do,” he says. “People are terrified – I will use that word – to come into town.”
Amanda and Andrew Davies, the husband and wife owners of On Your Bike in Stepney Street, disagree. They say things are definitely better. “We used to have a problem with anti-social girl groups – they were worse than the boys,” they say.
“After school they were just running riot through the town. It just seems to have stopped. Can we tell it’s just down to the CCTV cameras? We can’t.”
They say Ymlaen Llanelli has been making a difference.
“You’ve got the food festivals, music festivals, something for the children,” they say. People have a more positive view of the town. They come to these events and realise town isn’t that bad. Everything can improve – but it’s getting better.”