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A girl who looks no older than 15 stands on a street corner waiting for her next client. She is dressed in tight jeans and a skimpy top and wears heavy eyeliner and bright lipstick. No doubt, her pimp lurks nearby, ready to take the money she earns and in exchange to supply her with the drugs she craves. Not an uncommon sight in deprived inner cities across Britain.
But this is no notorious red light district in London, Birmingham or Glasgow. The girl is working the streets of Swindonone of Britain's most prosperous towns and a firm favourite with market researchers because it is perceived as home to a well-to-do Mr and Mrs Average, a place which reflects changing trends and attitudes. Beneath the Wiltshire town's comfortable exterior lies a serious and growing social problem.
New figures reveal that the of hard drug users in Swindon is on the increase. The price of heroin, in particular, has dropped sharply because so many dealers have descended on the town, realising it has a population with money to spend. And the sidelines which dealers inevitably have - such as drawing vulnerable teenagers into prostitution - are inevitably on the increase.
It is because Swindon is perceived as an accurate gauge of prosperous Britain that the drugs problem there is so relevant. The trade in hard drugs and the associated social issues are no longer only an inner city problem but one which is facing communities across the country. One drugs worker said: "Swindon is seen as a microcosm of the country, so if it is happening here, it is happening everywhere. The annual report of the Druglink, a Swindon charity which is often the first port of call for drug abusers, makes disturbing reading.
Heroin was easily the most common drug new clients were taking, followed by amphetamines and then cannabis. The majority of younger users, Druglink found, were injecting rather than smoking heroin. And, perhaps most tellingly, of these new clients only one in five were homeless or lived in "insecure" accommodation. Most were from relatively secure homes. Michael Robinson, team leader of the community and drug and alcohol services in Swindon, has had experience of working with addicts in some of Britain's most challenging areas, including King's Cross and Brixton in London. On his arrival in Swindon a year ago, he discovered a contrasting, but no less worrying, picture.
Many people we deal with here have jobs, homes and families. They may be working in factories or in the car industry. They have quite a lot of money and find that heroin is cheap and available - it is something to do. Over the past 10 years, business has boomed in Swindon. Blue chip firms flocked to the town, taking advantage of its transport links and forward-thinking local authority. Smart new estates continue to spring up, to house a growing and affluent populace, while the vibrant town centre bustles with shoppers with money to spend.
Innovations such as eye recognition cash machines have been tested in the town because it is seen as so typical - albeit that some residents complain at being labelled average. In short, Swindon has come to stand as a symbol of prosperous New Britain. An examination of the town's relatively low crime figures supports the idea that a different type of drug user is to be found in Swindon.
There are, for example, only two domestic burglaries per night in a community of somepeople. Many of Swindon's drug users, or so it appears, do not need to commit Swindon red light district to feed their habit because they already have the funds to buy drugs.
Dave, 20, is one such. He works in a local car factory Swindon red light district lives with his girlfriend on one of the new estates in the west of the town. He said: "I didn't really come across heroin when I was at school though there were other drugs we dabbled in - cannabis mainly, and ecstasy. I only smoked it, but some of the others began injecting. We would get it from a man in a pub. Everybody knew where to go.
I know people who have lost everything because they have got into heroin. I came to realise that it could wreck my job, my relationships, my whole life, and managed to get out. Ten years ago, there was relatively little heroin in Swindon.
Traditionally, amphetamines were the drug of choice, with the trade often overseen by motorcycle gangs. Fashions change and heroin use across the country is up. At the same time, competition continues to push the price of the drug down.
Meanwhile, he says, dealers have become more sophisticated. Gone are the days of huge heroin busts. Now dealers or couriers tend to make several journeys a week to cities such as Bristol or London and to pick up small amounts of heroin. The dealers know that if they are caught, they are likely to face much shorter jail terms if they have only a small amount of the drug.
It is, perhaps, ironic Swindon red light district one of the main reasons for heroin taking such a hold in Swindon is the town's transport links - a key factor in the rise in prosperity of the town's legitimate businesses. The human suffering which the drugs trade creates is starkly illustrated by the teenage girls lured into drug-taking and then prostitution by pimps and dealers. A representative of the charity Barnado's estimated at the conference that there could be such young women working the streets of Swindon. Ms Armstrong said a typical scenario was that a teenager would fall out with her family - whether over friends, clothes, money or school work - and begin playing truant.
She would be spotted hanging around the town by a drug-using pimp, who would impress her by taking her to pubs and clubs and buying her gifts - and drugs.
The pimp would then, perhaps, say he owed money for the drugs he had supplied to her and coerce her into sleeping with someone to repay the supposed debt. Ms Armstrong said: "By that stage she is isolated from her family and friends and dependent on drugs.
If the girl tried to break away from the pimp, he threatened to tell her family what she had become involved in. There are few places in Swindon for young women - and others drawn into the world of drugs - to meet to receive support and help. One organisation at the sharp end is the Stepping Forward project, run with the help of national lottery funds from St John's church hall in Park North in the east of the town. Caroline Kelly, a specialist outreach worker at the project, began working as a volunteer with young drug users after discovering that her son was taking heroin.
She was amazed to find that users had to wait months for treatment - last year some drug Swindon red light district in Swindon who had asked for help were waiting several months to be assessed for counselling and treatment - and then had nowhere to meet as they tried to piece their lives back together. Stepping Forward officially opened at the start of this year and it now caters for 60 youngsters aged 14 to 25 every week.
They can spend their time playing pool or table tennis and they have access Swindon red light district computers. Those who need it can receive tutoring in reading and writing and other skills from visiting teachers. All receive counselling and support as they try to find a way back into society. The project is visited by youngsters from all sorts of backgrounds and with different problems. Some are from prosperous, stable families, while others, inevitably, have had more troubled upbringings and are hampered by lack of qualifications and life skills. Even in prosperous Swindon, some fall through the net.
Peter, 24, for instance, describes how he has taken heroin and crack cocaine since the age of Then, there were only one or two dealers on the streets. Now, he says, there are so many that they are fighting over their patches. They carry knives, and, he says, will soon be carrying guns. Peter, who is now on the heroin substitute methadone, says he had no idea what he was becoming involved in when he first took heroin. I thought it was another type of cannabis. When I realised that it was smack, it was too late - I was hooked.
Since then he has been in and out of prison but is now determined to kick the drug habit. He shows how the needle tracks in his arms have healed. At Stepping Forward he is trying his hand at being a DJ on the centre's turn tables, which boom out dance music at deafening levels. The music and the optimism of the centre's visitors and inspirational staff make Stepping Out a welcoming place for the outsider.
But the atmosphere changes subtly when a couple of teenage girls walk into the centre. Keeping their eyes to the ground, they speak quietly to a volunteer, then friends tapping away at a computer. Tidy and fresh-faced, they look as if they should be worrying about homework or giggling with schoolmates about boyfriends.
In fact, they are prostitutes. If market researchers are Swindon red light district to tap into Swindon as an indicator of trends across the country, then its drugs problem is probably hitting, or is about to hit, other towns nationwide. Sinister shadow over an average town. Swindon's prosperity proves a lure to the heroin trade. Steven Morris. Transport links The dealers know that if they are caught, they are likely to face much shorter jail terms if they have only a small amount of the drug.
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