The public love them, the government champions them, and even initially suspicious police officers now view them as allies in the fight against crime.
Neighbourhood wardens, street wardens, street crime wardens - call them what you will - have arrived. More than 3,000 wardens in nearly 500 schemes patrol everywhere from Merseyside housing estates to the riverbank around London's Tate Modern, providing a reassuring presence in crime hot spots and keeping an eye on the environment.
They have proved universally popular with voters - except perhaps those on the receiving end of fixed penalty notices handed out by wardens with enforcement powers. However, despite their popularity, wardens face a moment of truth.
Government financial support for all but 36 of the 245 schemes that received central help will run out by next April. Councils must decide if they can justify using their own 'mainstream' money to keep their public spirited, bright-jacket wearing patrols on the streets.
It means wardens will have to demonstrate their worth as never before. If council tax money is to be diverted from environmental services, housing or regeneration budgets to keep them going, they will need to show hard evidence of how they have made savings through cleaning up an estate, encouraging businesses into an area by cutting crime, or reducing the number of void properties.
It has so far proved notoriously difficult to demonstrate beyond doubt that improvements in crime statistics or environmental conditions are the result of a group of wardens. One council privately accepts it has been 'throwing money' at wardens believing they are bringing dramatic improvements but with, so far, no concrete proof to support their faith .
Attempts to evaluate the schemes on a national scale have found they do bring benefits in reassuring the public and tackling the fear of crime. An ODPM study released last week found a 28% drop in crime in the first wave of 84 areas to have neighbourhood wardens, along with a 10% drop in fear of street crime.
Despite Whitehall's supportive attitude, there are fears that schemes will fall by the wayside when the government money runs out.
Andrew Cutten, policy officer at the Local Government Information Unit, says if councils cannot find mainstream funding for warden schemes they could be wound up - just as they were being accepted and working well.
'They are making a valuable contribution to local communities in terms of reassuring the public at a time when the fear of crime is going up but rates are going down. They do fulfil some form of civic duty at a time when we are not seeing very many people in these roles.
'The concern with the present system of funding is that each time it becomes vulnerable there is a worry that expectations could have been raised only to be removed. The money needs to be mainstreamed into core areas.'
For that to happen warden scheme managers will need to find some solid statistics demonstrating their worth in terms of hard cash.
Stuart Douglass, senior policy officer for the Local Government Association and community safety manager for Northumberland CC, says that task will present councils with some very 'hard-headed' calculations over the rest of the financial year.
'The big challenge for councils is that you have a pay-off from making people feel safer on the streets. If you reduce void housing you reduce the costs of that to the housing budget, if you bring confidence back to an area you help its regeneration.
'But there is pressure on statutory services like social services and education. You have your statutory services to meet as well, so funding for wardens is going to have to prove its benefits.'
Des Waters, head of street scene and public pro tection at Southwark LBC, where the Liberal Democrat administration is committed to having wardens throughout the borough, says finding that proof can be 'almost impossible'.
Southwark has put£2m of its own money into wardens this year and its enthusiasm for them is such that by next March at least 100 will be patrolling crime hot spots like Bermondsey, Camberwell, and Peckham as well as the regenerated Bankside area. Mr Waters says there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that they have had results - including Camberwell's lowest recorded crime figures ever in their first week of operation, and the quietest firework night Bermondsey's fire brigade can remember last year - but as yet no overall hard-nosed financial analysis.
'We are really relying on the fact the feedback from residents says they love wardens and can see the impact. We have not yet got the objective data to say it is financially worth it,' he says.
'There are falling levels of crime in the area but it is impossible to say to what extent that is down to the wardens. To show hard proof that funding makes sense is difficult because at the end of the day it comes down to a political judgment that members make on whether people feel safer.
'We are lucky because there is that political support behind the warden schemes. As my schemes expand we will have to get harder edged about it. I don't think anybody has solved this one yet.'
At Knowsley MBC community safety manager Paul Cummins has got closer to a solution than many. Knowsley's 55 wardens have been commended by the ODPM, and they are about to double in number. But the central government money ran out in April, and after Neighbourhood Renewal Fund grant finishes in 2006 it will be down to the council to find ways of ensuring sustainable funding.
The borough is looking at every aspect of wardens' work and how it can be justifiably funded by mainstream budgets.
Mr Cummins, who carried out an impact study of warden schemes as part of his studies for an MSc, believes his researc h proves wardens have clearly shown their worth.
His study of a scheme in Stockbridge Village, a previously troublesome estate of 6,500 people, found in the first year of the warden scheme, burglaries fell by 40%, and criminal damage to homes and cars by 48%. From January 2000 to April 2003 theft from motor vehicles dropped by 55%.
The wardens have also been responsible for finding 'tens of thousands of pounds' of investment for drug and alcohol projects after they spotted a problem, approached advice teams, and then identified the young people who would benefit from going on a scheme.
The ODPM's nationwide study of wardens also evaluated Stockbridge, and found wardens had reduced harassment and intimidation, cut fly-tipping, and broken down isolation of the elderly.
Mr Cummins believes such evidence shows why public support for wardens is so high and it will be politically untenable for councils to drop schemes like Stockbridge.
'We have got a careful exercise to undertake this year, but the message is that communities won't allow members to take them away. They add so much, they provide so much that it can only be hopeful,' he says.
Similar evidence is available from the much smaller warden scheme in Morden, south London, where nine wardens operate in Wimbledon town centre and areas of Mitcham. After wardens were introduced in one street in Mitcham, police recorded a 45% drop in call-outs to the area, including a 67% drop in calls about abandoned vehicles, fly-tipping and graffiti.
When wardens led an environmental clean-up of the Pollards Hill area near Sutton, they found nine abandoned cars, that were then cleared away before they could be set on fire.
'Every time a warden identifies an abandoned vehicle that is a cost saving of£5,000 that would otherwise be spent by calling out the fire brigade and cleaning up the street afterwards,' said Merton's regional warden resource centre manager Ian Fall.
He is confident his warden scheme is 'fully sustainable' and the cost-efficienci es do appear to have been recognised by Merton, which has committed£205,000 a year to expand the warden scheme to April 2006.
When councils make up their minds on the future of warden schemes after next April, the financial evidence will be crucial in deciding if they are worthy of mainstream money. But popular support may help them take up a place as a new 'core' service alongside education or social services.
As Stuart Douglass says: 'Not everybody in a local authority area needs social services or education, but everybody likes to see a pleasant and safe environment.'