ONLY a few months ago, St Elphin's Close in Howley was blighted by open drug dealing and anti-social behaviour.

Residents who had called the area home for decades were living in fear of a handful of troublemakers who had newly moved onto the estate.

But thanks to a series of raids, evictions and plain clothes operations, police have 'weeded out' the criminals and returned the ownership of the street to the law-abiding.

Since March, Cheshire Police's Warrington problem solving team – which was set up last year to tackle the root causes of persistent issues in the town – have been working to turn things around.

Warrington Guardian:

Cheshire Police's Warrington problem solving team

But it was only by chance that officers first discovered that there was an issue.

Police sergeant Alex Reeves said: “St Elphin’s Close was built around 50 years ago and it mainly housed families until fairly recently, when several long-term occupants moved out and a lot of properties were let out.

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“Certain types of people have moved into the estate and caused problems over the past five years or so.

“It wasn’t somewhere that had really come to our attention until March, when we went onto the estate looking for a wanted man.

“He wasn’t inside the address, but there were three lads with a load of drugs, cash and weapons.

“While we were there, we noticed how hostile some people on the estate were towards the police – they wanted us to feel as though it was their estate and that the police weren’t welcome.

“It took us by surprise a little bit, so we thought we’d go back in uniform the next day.

“But residents didn’t want to be seen speaking to the police because they were fearful of the minority who were causing the problems.

“There was clearly an issue, so we developed another approach to contact them by phone and to go out onto the estate in plain clothes."

This covert operation allowed officers to uncover a glut of long standing issues.

Warrington Guardian:

These included parties that would go on into the early hours and see fighting spill onto the street at 4am.

In response, search warrants were executed to combat drug dealing in the area.

Last week, two drug dealers were jailed after £10,000 of heroin and crack cocaine was seized during raids carried out at Kingsley Molyneux's home on St Elphin’s Close and another on nearby Sidings Court in Fairfield, off Manchester Road.

Molyneux, 27, was handed four years and 10 months behind bars after admitting possession of heroin and crack cocaine with intent to supply - having also been carrying £5,000 in cash at the time.

Warrington Guardian:

Kingsley Molyneux

Meanwhile, 25-year-old Declan Jenks - of Alder Lane in Orford - was handed three years and 10 months behind bars after admitting conspiracy to supply heroin and crack cocaine in connection with the raids.

Warrington Guardian:

Declan Jenks

And last month, Warrington Magistrates Court granted closure orders on two houses on St Elphin’s Close after repeated breaches of coronavirus lockdown measures.

These neighbouring properties had been a hub for drug taking, drunken behaviour, fly-tipping and violence.

The closure orders now mean that no entry will be permitted for a period of three months.

Warrington Guardian:

PS Reeves added: "Two particular addresses on the estate which are 15 yards away from each other stood out as being a root cause of crime and anti-social behaviour.

"Residents who have lived there since the estate was built told us that this corner of the estate was a no-go area.

"Gradually, we started to disrupt these activities.

"You start off by weeding out the criminal element before revitalising the area until it's handed over autonomously to the good people on the estate to maintain.

Warrington Guardian:

"We've been out there practically every day to let those who are of a criminal mindset know that we're not going away.

"The policing activity has increased that much that it's made it harder for people to engage in criminality like they were.

"It was difficult to get a foothold, but now we have done it's a case of keeping that momentum going."

The everyday, ordinary people of St Elphin's Close are now able to sleep soundly in their beds again since the police have taken back control.

PS Reeves said: "99 per cent of the feedback we've had from residents has been really positive, they are genuinely really appreciative.

"One older lady told us she'd had a good night's sleep for the first time in years.

"A little girl who was about nine or 10 said she'd been allowed out on her bike for the first time because it's been too scary before.

"There is still work to do, but it's much more positive now.

"People were genuinely frightened of the handful who were causing the problems and the kind of people they were attracting as well.

"I'd like to think now that people are more emboldened to approach us.

"It's just testament to how hard everybody has worked across the board."

Cheshire police and crime commissioner David Keane has also praised the problem solving team for their efforts in repeated problem areas.

Warrington Guardian:

PCC David Keane and PS Reeves on St Elphin's Close

He said: “I believe that policing should be truly local and community focused, working with key partner agencies to make our communities safer places to live, work and visit.

“Warrington’s local policing team has always worked closely with colleagues in the local authority in order to address issues in Warrington’s communities.

“The new problem solving team is making joint working even easier, and will ensure that community safety issues are dealt with more efficiently and effectively."