Aug 12 2011: A Potential Solution in the Aftermath of the Recent Riots (Images from Nottingham, 2008 – 2009)
It’s been interesting hearing the many theories emerging about the recent disturbances, in London and elsewhere, because, in a way, it all looks very familiar: less a shock, than a reminder. You see, in our bit of Nottingham, we’ve been there already. Up to about two years ago, when a few gangs were gathering, dispersing as police arrived, re-gathering to kick off, deal, burgle, vandalise and generally create havoc, the few streets around us, and our own road, often looked like a smaller version of what has been going on elsewhere this past week: the photographs here are all taken from a folder of images last updated in mid-2009, though clearly they do look much like images from this week’s various clean-ups. Being slightly ahead of that curve, we’ve also (this might be the more interesting bit) seen how a situation like this can be solved, albeit on a smaller scale, so perhaps it’s worth outlining how this was done.
The key points in how those issues were dealt with effectively after a serious escalation in crime and ASB took place over 2008/9 – with a long and trying build-up during 2007 – can be summarised as follows:
1) Local residents started cataloguing incidents, including minor ones (which hold value in building a detailed picture), meeting with police and councillors, and co-ordinating efforts. The starting point is for those affected to talk to each other, and report the things that are going on, as otherwise (when people – as they initially usually did – say “no point, nothing’ll get done”) that becomes, obviously, a self-fulfilling prophecy. It also means when bigger more serious things do happen, and are reported, these will be perceived as random or isolated incidents, which they clearly are not. We also quickly discovered that resources are allocated on the basis of levels of crime and ASB reported – local councillors and police won’t have adequate resources to deal with these things until the issues have been raised and the problems registered, making cynicism about councils, police and other responsible authorities a largely self-confirming notion.
2) Police were – at the worst of it – often dependent on centralised call-outs: cars would head down, gangs disappear, cars go off on other calls, gangs reappear… A cat and mouse game that the mice win mainly because they have one thing police don’t – near-infinite time and patience, to wait for a clear opportunity to act, and nothing much to lose (the gangs clearly knew enough to step up criminal activity at peak times – Friday and Saturday nights, say – when police resources are already most stretched). A case was made for running some of the key policing effort locally, allowing Beat Managers who knew the individuals and layout of the area, times of peak activity and patterns of behaviour – and who were, crucially, able to gather informal but accurate intelligence from those living in the affected areas – to take a lead role. This way, more of the participants in crime, dealing, vandalism and ASB are caught. Some enter programmes that may pull them out of crime and ASB, some (the harder core) are put through the courts and (where necessary) prisons.
3) At the peak of the ASB/crime, there was almost no dedicated youth provision in the areas where it was taking place. The solution: opening up community centres more often, providing access to youth workers and detached teams, able to steer borderline cases towards vocational training schemes, local colleges, and other constructive activities. This way, the hangers-on and merely bored are split from the hard core, which (i) exposes the core individuals and (ii) reduces the amount of ASB/crime taking place overall. (This is one area where for all the political rhetoric, and all the jibes you hear about ‘diversity officers’ and ‘youth workers’ on councils, whose remit some of this is, cuts are going to seriously impact – and may have done already in some areas of London).
4) We shouldn’t underestimate how important things like libraries, SureStart, training projects and other accessible contact points with services in these areas are: support for families struggling to cope, making sure you’ve got pro-active people out talking to the groups gathering on corners and drawing them into other activities are crucial. Again, much of this is currently being cut, but economically that makes no sense: we’ve seen plenty of evidence that relatively small sums spent in areas like this save vast amounts of otherwise inevitable policing and social services budgets. On top of this, the loss caused by unchecked ASB can run deep: business start-ups that choose to go elsewhere, damage to public and private property, general feelings of insecurity and (often) a depletion in numbers of concerned but exhausted residents from the area.
5) Private landlords remain a major problem in terms of the old ‘broken window’ theory about lawlessness and decline in areas. Basically, houses are bought, converted (often without planning permission), overcrowded with transient residents and left (with only a few exceptions) to their own devices. Legislation to empower councils to act against the worst landlords, changes in taxation to remove the advantages BTL buyers have over others in the market, and more pro-active planning enforcement being brought in (rather than eroded) are more important factors than they might seem.
6) Utilising empty shops/buildings for purposes that will generate small scale and start up business activity (again, this is a planning/private Landlord issue much of the time, where we are). In our area, a lot of ex-council and some corporate property has been allocated on long leases to artists’studios, community projects etc – but more could be done (especially where commercial premises are held but neglected by private owners, where they’re ultimately hoping their ‘eyesores’ will be allowed to be demolished and rebuilt as flats or other high-margin strains on resources just to get rid of them). People are working on this stuff here, and moving towards more ‘commercial’ low-cost spaces too – but the current planning reforms being pushed through Parliament seem intent on making this all far harder (and punitively expensive) for councils to consistently pursue, tipping the balance further in favour of landlords and owners over the wider communities they can so adversely affect.
While these things don’t, necessarily, explain or ‘deal with’ the immediate riots (or even more general low-key crime and ASB) they are – we can say from experience – all prerequisites for changing the context out of which that behaviour comes, while making areas better, in general, for everyone who lives in them. While some politicians and onlookers bang their tables and play armchair hardman (oddly enough, sounding uncannily like precise mirror images of those they want to confront), and others apply ‘one-size fits all’ social theories to the disturbances, there’s been no real comment on what the solution might be, or what can be done to prevent future eruptions. Because the riots and looting have only differed in scale to the constant ASB/crime we had in our area 2/3 years back, and because this is the stuff that has worked to reduce it (to the point where, remarkably, ours was one of very few inner city areas not too badly affected by the wider lawlessness this week) it seems worth spelling out this simplified version of a series of actions that made things much better. It’s not exactly Henley-on-Thames round here even now but this is the small stuff that made a very big, very quick and (comparatively) low-cost difference on the ground.
What this demonstrates, I hope, is that working intelligently, with joined-up provision and adequate resources in place, can both improve problem areas and – in the longer term – save vast sums elsewhere in the system by preventing problems from reaching crisis point. It’s an ongoing solution, requiring long-term commitment, and it’s not a magic bullet – but it does work. That at least some of this structure is potentially under threat from cuts in posts, opening hours and other key elements of the plan put into place during 2009/10 is a concern, given that the breaking of the links joining-up services and departments – from policing and planning to social services and environment – will almost inevitably result in the same fragmentation that hampered efforts to tackle these issues prior to its implementation.