Norwich bus issues life-saving message to other cities
It soon became apparent that what started out as a project to provide a safe haven for people on the streets was something that was needed not only in Norwich, but also in other parts of the country.
The SOS Bus proved itself to be an enormous success since it was set up in Norwich in 2001 following the Evening News's Home Safe and Sound campaign which was prompted by the river deaths of Nick Green, 16, and James Toms, 21, following nights out in the city.
Before long the success of the bus, which was sponsored by the Evening News, was one of Norwich's worst-kept secrets and the project was to attract huge national exposure, making it a must-have facility for other cities.
Having received praise from then home secretary Jack Straw in the month it was launched, the project established its own website to help get the good work of the bus out to the wider world.
Colin Lang, a former policeman who was instrumental in helping to set up the bus and worked as its operational manager until 2008, was inundated from calls from police and community leaders from other parts of the country.
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In 2005, with news of the bus's success having reached Ireland, Mr Lang was asked to visit to help try to replicate the project in Belfast.
Two years later Mr Lang was invited back to Northern Ireland to see for himself the launch of an SOS Bus project in the city.
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But it was not just in Northern Ireland that the project had resonated with community leaders. Schemes were also set up in a host of other places throughout the country, including Blackburn, Newquay, Southend and Leicester.
The Norwich project was also visited by police officers from Sussex who wanted to set up a similar scheme on the south coast as well as by a contingent from Edinburgh who were interested in setting up an SOS Bus north of the border.
In October 2007 the Norwich SOS Bus project was the subject of a conference in the city attended by police chiefs and council leaders from other parts of the UK who wanted to set up similar schemes.
And in 2008 Mr Lang headed to Downing Street to meet then Home Office minister Vernon Coker to discuss the possibility of funding for a National Association of SOS Buses.
Mr Lang said: 'From a small acorn has a huge oak tree grown. It's been a tremendous success, one which the government picked up on and used it as part of their tool kit for the night-time economy and so it still continues – Great Yarmouth is desperate to get one down there and Lowestoft too, so interest is still there.
'One of the key things at the moment is finance so its the funding which is stopping it from spreading even further.'
The clamour to find out more about the Norwich bus project came after the bus was put under the national media microscope with several high-profile appearances.
In 2006 an ITV film crew spent a night on shift with volunteers on the bus in Norwich for a special edition of the Tonight programme, hosted by Sir Trevor McDonald, which was looking at the impact of 24-hour drinking.
About a year earlier the bus also featured in a BBC show about alcohol which was hosted by Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond.
And in 2008 it emerged that a production team from ITV's This Morning programme were to visit Norwich to film the work of the bus in action.
The film which resulted from the visit was aired on the same show that then prime minister Gordon Brown appeared on in May 2008.
So impressed by what he saw was Mr Brown that he later called Mr Lang personally to praise him about the great work the bus does.
Speaking on the show, Mr Brown said: 'I think he (Colin Lang) is going to talk to one of our Home Office ministers to talk about it.
'We are looking into whether there would be any benefits from other places taking up the scheme and if there is anything we can do to help we will.'
Mr Lang, who is no longer part of the Norwich project but has since been involved in a pilot in Great Yarmouth, said he was proud of how the project had succeeded not only in Norwich, but also in other parts of the country.
Nowhere is this more true than in Belfast, which launched its own project in 2007 with a state-of-the art bus complete with CCTV camera system to protect volunteers and clients as well as plasma screens, games machines and a fully stocked suite in the back where people can receive professional medical attention.
The Belfast SOS Bus provides refreshments and support to those in need every Friday and Saturday night in Belfast city centre.
To date more than 75,000 people have interacted with the project since it began in November 2007.
Mr Lang's visit to the Belfast project proved the catalyst to want to take the Norwich SOS Bus project to the next level with its own state-of-the art service.
See tomorrow's Evening News for how mechanical gremlins led to the need to launch a hunt for a new SOS Bus for the city.
To find out more about the SOS Bus project or how you can donate or volunteer, call 01603 763111 or log onto www.sosbus.co.uk
To contact the SOS Bus's emergency number call 07833 505505.
Have you been helped by the SOS Bus? Call reporter Peter Walsh on 01603 772436 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
What the SOS Bus means to Norwich
Tim Williams, Evening News editor, said: 'The SOS Bus is a pioneering and life-saving Norwich project which the Evening News has helped champion from the very beginning.
'Our Home Safe and Sound campaign, launched in 2001 following the tragic river deaths of Nick Green, 16, and James Toms, 21, after nights out in the city, called for a safe haven to be set up in the city to help protect night-time visitors to the city and the SOS Bus has certainly proved to be just that.
'Having helped almost 6,500 people since it was first set up in 2001 the project has more than proved its worth and the Evening News will, as it has done over the past decade, continue to champion the bus which has been one of the biggest success stories in Norwich in the past 10 years.'
Julian Foster, chairman of the Central Norwich Citizens' Forum, said: 'With the SOS Bus there's almost nothing left to say - it's been praised to much over the years. It's done a huge amount of good in the city and has been a life saver for many people and has become a flagship which others have copied.
'It's all praise to everyone who had anything to do with it - those involved in setting it up and those that keep it going, particularly the volunteers.'
Toby Middleton, operations manager of Mercy nightclub on Prince of Wales Road, said: 'It's a pioneering pilot project of genius which has been put into other cities and towns in the country. We're very fortunate to have it and I don't know what we would do without it. We're very, very lucky to have the support of the volunteers that we do to have it on a weekly basis - we're very spoilt and lucky and long may it stay.'
Steve Morphew, leader of Norwich City Council, said: 'The SOS Bus has helped keep people safe and has stopped a lot of problems from escalating which could have been a lot worse.
'It's not simply about people who have been overdoing it in clubland - there's a lot of people with other problems that the bus has managed to help. It's a brilliant service and I hope it continues for a long time yet.'
Charles Clarke, former Norwich South MP, said: 'The SOS Bus was a fantastic and innovative project which owes a great deal to the work and commitment of a number of people and organisations. My role was simply one of encouragement but I feel that the whole project has stamped its message both on Norwich and more widely.'