Belfast Telegraph

Vandals try to torch Avoneil playcentre

By Rebecca Petticrew

An arson attack on a children's play centre is the latest indication that the area has "gone to the dogs", locals say as they call for police to do more to tackle antisocial behaviour in the area.

In the early hours of Friday morning (October 11) a wheelie bin was set alight and pushed up against the entrance to the Belfast City Council run Avoniel children's play facility on Avoniel Road.

Police and the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue service attended the scene shortly after the fire was reported at 12.40am and the fire was extinguished.

Damage was caused to the entrance and part of the roof, leaving the building deemed unsafe for use. A council spokesperson was unable to say when the facility will reopen as damage assessments are currently being completed.

Around 20 residents from the neighbouring streets gathered at the facility – which provides daily afterschool and holiday activities for around 60 children each week – on Friday morning as news of the fire spread throughout the community.

Mother-of-two Leanne Lynch explained the centre's closure will have a major impact on her household.

"My eight-year-old son has ADHD. He comes to the playcentre four times a week and that is viewed as a cooling off period for him and us. I can't let my children play outside at home because we're on a main road, so this is the only place they can run around."

Residents told the Community Telegraph the area is becoming increasingly unsafe, with drug users inhabiting the areas around the playcentre and adjacent Avoniel Leisure Centre at night.

They spoke of fireworks being thrown, people drinking and general vandalism taking place on a regular basis.

"There's a lot of fear in the community at the moment. The area has gone to the dogs.," Leanne said.

"There used to be community police around here all the time but they're nowhere to be seen now. They've been told about the drugs and the alcohol and the fireworks but where are they?" she added.

Sally Patton has lived in the area for 32 years. She feels police need to increase their presence in the area: "Nobody's doing anything. Every weekend we have to put up with this carry on.

"You phone the police and the police don't come out. They're more interested in what your name is and people are scared to give their names because you'll get your windows put in.

"Workers at the leisure centre are scared to leave the building at night because there are large groups of people hanging around. This isn't a place you would come at night."

A PSNI spokesperson said police are aware of the impact anti-social behavioural issues have on the local community and work "tirelessly" to tackle the problem.

"We take a very pro-active approach working in partnership with local community groups and the local council. We will continue to work hard to tackle the issues and reduce the number of incidents," they explained.

"We continue to exploit all opportunities to address these problems. However, to do this we require the help and support of the community.

"Anyone witnessing incidents of antisocial behaviour should report it to police immediately and provide statements to allow all possible action to be taken. We are also willing to meet anyone who has any concerns and suggestions on how we can tackle this issue," they added."

The DUP's Robin Newton MLA, Cllr Adam Newton and Alderman Gavin Robinson joined the Alliance Party's Cllr Maire Hendron and UUP MLA Michael Copeland in visiting the playcentre in the aftermath of the attack, united in their condemnation of the incident.

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