Ten years of Norwich’s SOS Bus

The life-saving SOS Bus, which is based in Prince of Wales Road – the heart of the city's clubland – celebrates its landmark anniversary on April 27.

But the project, which has helped more than 6,000 people since it was launched, might not ever have existed had it not been for a string of river tragedies.

Nick Green, 16, vanished following a night out in the city on January 18, 2001 to celebrate his impending 17th birthday.

The body of Nick, a City of Norwich School pupil, was recovered from the River Yare a month later on February 17.

The teenager's death together with that of 21-year-old James Toms, whose body was pulled from the same stretch of river three months earlier following a night out in Norwich, prompted the community to come together to help make the city safer.

The Evening News launched its Home Safe and Sound campaign in the wake of the river deaths to help vulnerable people out in the city.

Meanwhile community, council, nightclub and police leaders had been working together to try to prevent similar tragedies happening again in the future.

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Graham Dacre, businessman, entrepreneur and founder of the Open Youth Project, said he was first approached to see if he had any property on Prince of Wales Road from which to operate some kind of safe house.

He said: 'I said I didn't have anything on Prince of Wales Road, but what I have got is a bendy bus and it was from all of that that the SOS Bus was spawned.'

And so it was that the original 17.4-metre-long bus, which was donated by Christian Group Proclaimers International who sourced it from the streets of Berlin, was established in the fine city of Norwich.

Mr Dacre said he is 'delighted' that the project has become so successful and was glad to have been able to play a part in its formation.

He said: 'The project has had a greater impact than anyone could have imagined and it's become part of the fabric of Norwich. I'm pleased that the initiative has not only proved well for the community but it's saved lives and is a great credit to all those who volunteered their time over the years.'

John Drake, former chief executive of Norfolk YMCA, said the bus came about at a time when the 'city was in corporate shock' as a result of a string of recent tragedies.

He said that Norwich City Council together with the nightclub industry, police and other community organisations in the city, came together as one to try to prevent future deaths.

He said: 'It wasn't just the SOS Bus that came out of this corporate realisation, it was a whole new way of looking at the river and seeing it not only as a place of attraction, but also a place of risk.

'It was insuring that the streets were as safe as inside the clubs – inside the clubs there was responsibility – but the streets were a riskier place than they are today.'

Mr Drake said the bus's lasting legacy is that it has helped make the streets of Norwich safer in so many ways.

He said: 'Out of that legacy of the SOS Bus has come things like street pastors, police chaplains, radio links between the nightclubs, better regulation of nightclubs – it's not just a bus, and I think you can say the number of reported incidents in Prince of Wales Road have significantly diminished. I think it's a success because no one agency can claim its theirs – it belongs to the whole of the community.'

When it first arrived on the streets of Norwich, the bus, which operated every Friday and Saturday night as it continues to do today, was parked at the top of Prince of Wales Road near Agricultural Hall Plain.

The bus, which was sponsored by the Evening News, did however make one significant journey out of the city to Brighton for the Labour Party conference in 2001.

Rush hour traffic was brought to a standstill as cars and other vehicles were stopped to allow the 55-foot bus to make its way to a spot opposite the seaside resort's West Pier.

The bus, which was supported by both Labour city MPs of the time, Charles Clarke and Ian Gibson, was in Brighton as part of a bid to secure government funding to finance it for the foreseeable future.

The scheme did impress the country's leaders and in 2001 the bus won praise from then home secretary Jack Straw who described the SOS Bus as a 'creative and innovative scheme and I wish it every success'.

But by 2005 project bosses were looking to find it a new home closer to home, outside the NatWest bank on Prince of Wales Road, which was closer to the heart of the nightclub district.

Former Norfolk police officer Colin Lang MBE, who was instrumental in setting up the SOS Bus project, was one of the key players in getting the bus moved to its new location in 2006 so it could help even more people.

Mr Lang said he has been proud to have been involved so closely to a project which has helped so many people over the years.

He said: 'I'm so pleased it's worked. It's helped so many people not just in Norwich, but also around the country since its gone to other regions as well.'

Mr Lang said it was unfortunate that the bus had to be born out of tragedy, but added that the fact the city and its streets are now a safer place is testament to what the bus has achieved in light of those deaths. He said: 'Hopefully, as a result, it has saved many more lives. You can't show that on paper, but what you can show is the huge amount of people who have been helped through a whole range of issues, not just medical but things like relationships or those who can't get home.'

See tomorrow's Evening News for how the pioneering SOS Bus Project became a model for other cities across the country.