All posts tagged: riots
Writing in yesterday’s Times (paywall) Iain Duncan Smith laid the blame for the riots squarely at the door of social housing providers. He wrote:
“For years now, too many people have remained unaware of the true nature of life on some of our estates. This was because we had ghettoised many of these problems, keeping them out of sight of the middle-class majority. But last month the inner city finally came to call, and the country was shocked by what it saw.”
When is our sector going to fight back against this kind of rhetoric? Housing providers seem to have become the scapegoat for most of the perceived ills of society – welfare dependency and worklessness, crime, gangs, fecklessness, single mothers, foreigners jumping the housing queue and now rioters. But is there really a correlation between tenure and rioting? The Guardian has been trying to map the addresses of those convicted to date against the location of the riots but the results so far are inconclusive. We all know that even if someone lives in an area that is predominantly made up of social housing they could well be living in a right to buy property and be relatively well off.
However, what is clear is that 73% of the rioters who have been convicted to date had a previous criminal conviction. Astonishingly, each rioter with a criminal record had an average of fifteen convictions. Yes fifteen. I wrote in a previous blog that probably no more than 20,000 people were involved in the August riots, but these latest figures prove that the riots were predominantly a law and order issue and not a symptom of some deeper social malaise. The “thin blue line” was well and truly stretched when police lost control of the streets of Tottenham and Wood Green on the night of the 8th August. News of the police retreat spread like proverbial wildfire around the country and it was mainly a criminal underclass who responded to the temptation of free trainers and electrical goods. No more and no less.
Yet many politicians and commentators like Phillip Blond have responded to the riots with their “Broken Britain” thesis, as if these events were symptomatic of some deep and enduring malaise in our society. I profoundly disagree with this thesis for a number of reasons. First, it slurs the vast majority of law-abiding, hard working citizens. Second, it ignores the massive improvements that have taken place over the past twenty years in terms of social programmes, training and education, community engagement, empowerment and police community relations. Third, it ignores the sterling work carried out by housing providers to improve their homes and estates. And finally, for a country that is seeking to welcome millions of foreign visitors to the Olympics you could hardly come up with a more stupid branding exercise than “Broken Britain”. Time for a re-think ministers?
The “Riot Report” has been launched by Inside Housing, the CIH and NHF to investigate the lessons that can be learned from the recent riots. A good starting point could be the analysis in today’s Guardian on the sentencing of rioters. The vast majority of those charged so far are young and unemployed. 19% were aged under 18 and 54% were aged 18 to 24. Only 9% were women. The Guardian finds that sentences to date are around 25% tougher than for comparable offences in non-riot situations, although interestingly no one has yet been charged with the actual offence of riot. The Guardian report includes a spreadsheet that lists the home addresses of those charged. Housing providers would be well advised to check these against their own stock. Is it the case, as the tabloid press implies, that the rioters are overwhelmingly the product of social housing estates or is the picture more complex?
Over the past week there has also been a great deal of coverage of gang culture as an underlying factor in the riots. Prince Charles visited Hackney and Croydon and described gang membership as a “cry for help” and said that kids join gangs because they are lacking a framework to their lives. He is probably right, but as a sector we need to know if there is a correlation between gang membership and residence in social housing. Has anyone studied this?
Last week’s Observer carried a report on a 16 year old gang member called Joe who lives on a Hackney estate. Because of the threat of violence Joe rarely leaves his home turf, and this is one of the tragedies of gang membership: it may provide a sense of power and esteem, but it also limits the geographical and social horizons of its members and cuts off the “bridging” social capital that is so important in allowing young people to get ahead. Joe recognises the predicament he is in. He has a ten-year old brother and says, “I don’t let him go out late at night. He’s still in school and I don’t want him caught up in this train of madness”.
I think the “train of madness” is a suitable metaphor for all those who have embarked upon gang membership or who were swept up in the riots.
We all know that adolescents and young people are infinitely malleable; they seek excitement and adventure and they often make stupid choices. I know I did. In the post-riot world the challenge will be to reach out to kids like Joe and the others who have been convicted in the riots and steer them in a different direction. As I mentioned above, the overwhelming majority of those charged to date are young and unemployed. This means that housing providers will probably need to concentrate upon programmes that provide better alternatives for young people, not just training and employment opportunities, but programmes that widen their horizons with new experiences and activities. They will need to do this in partnership with organisations as diverse as the Army Cadets (tagline “Enjoy adrenaline and adventure?”) and the Prince’s Trust. But I think the first step is a cool analysis of the factors that led to the riots and an understanding of who the rioters are and where they came from. This includes an understanding of gangs and gang culture within social housing. Getting young people off “the train of madness” will be a major achievement.
It is not only the glaziers and shop-fitters who will benefit from last week’s riots. Criminologists, sociologists and psychologists will be busy over the next few months as they try to provide answers to the violence that erupted across England. Some will blame “Broken Britain” and point to a collapse of the family, of moral values and respect. In fact I have just been listening to David Cameron blaming the riots on our “broken society”. Others will blame the cuts. Here are my initial thoughts.
Firstly, there is little doubt that the police lost control of the streets on the nights of 6th and 7th August. In Tottenham and Wood Green people were looting with impunity and the police were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps scarred by the Tomlinson affair and criticism of their aggressive tactics the police held back or were simply wrong-footed. Everything followed from this. News of an absent police force spread quickly and copycat looting spread throughout London, and to other parts of England over the next few days. Many young people were caught up in the excitement and the chance to acquire some new stuff. Some of the rioters were well off and in work, but overwhelmingly they came from poor areas and it is estimated that 70 percent of those charged to date have a previous conviction. So this was opportunistic shopping with violence, largely carried out by a criminal underclass or people swept up in the passion of the moment, without any clear social or philosophical cause. People in the Middle East may be rising up for freedom and democracy but people in Croydon and Manchester were rising up for a new TV or a pair of trainers.
Secondly, let’s get the numbers into perspective. Most incidents around the country involved only a few hundred people, with fast moving gangs rampaging through the streets. At most, I would guess that no more than 20,000 people were involved in the rioting and looting. This is a tiny minority of young people and an even smaller minority of the population. This is not some kind of mass uprising and to imply that it represents a fundamental societal problem is nonsense. Far right groups probably have a similar number of active supporters, but do we see that as a symptom of a sick society? I don’t think so.
The truth is that sporadic riots have been a feature of English life for centuries. In 1780, around 50,000 Londoners took part in the anti-Catholic “Gordon riots” – 285 people were killed by the army and 20 rioters were subsequently executed, although Lord Gordon, who had instigated the whole event, was let off. The riots damaged Britain’s reputation abroad: many countries saw British democracy as an inherently unstable and weak form of government. But Britain went on to become the greatest power in the world.
Today, many commentators will seek to explain the riots on some underlying sickness in our society. But to claim that we live in a “broken society” is an insult to the vast majority of hard-working decent people, many of whom have been helped by housing providers to seek work and improve their educational chances. It also ignores the massive progress that has taken place over the past two decades in education, improved community relations and, not least, relationships between the police and the communities they serve. Of course, there remains a core underclass, addicted to consumerism and a nihilistic culture and impervious to education and aspiration. Housing providers have been at the forefront of trying to deal with some of this group, providing community facilities and educational opportunities, but more needs to be done to bring these people on board.
If you want to look for wider causes, there is clearly a problem of inequality in this country, and if we are to talk about moral decay then you need to start at the top, with bankers and politicians, and Cameron was right to highlight this in his speech this morning. But I am doubtful that most of the rioters had these thoughts, or anger about the cuts, at the forefront of their minds as they went about their business last week. There is also a danger of a “kneejerk” reaction to the riots, spurred on by the tabloids and some politicians. Jailing someone for six months for stealing a few bottles of water is out of proportion, in my view. Similarly, evicting a family because one of its members has been convicted of looting is not right. Not only is it a double punishment, but why is social housing seen as some kind of perk that can be withdrawn, whereas education and healthcare are not?
But the riots also showed the good face of society. After the tragic events in Birmingham, the Muslim community – so often demonised by the tabloid press – has emerged as united, strong and dignified in the face of tragedy. Kurdish shopkeepers in Hackney and Sikhs in many parts of the country came together to defend their communities from criminality. Individual cases – such as the on-line campaign to help 89 year old Aaron Biber whose barber shop in Tottenham had been trashed, raised £25,000 and restored your faith in human kindness. The Malaysian student who was robbed as he lay injured in the street has also been overwhelmed with gifts and support. The riot clean up organised through Twitter attracted thousands of people with brooms and dustpans. If you want to see the Big Society in action this was it.