Safe as houses
Landlords can soothe their residents’ perceptions of high crime risk by making neighbourhoods safer in reality, says Caroline Thorpe
Barnes, a south west London neighbourhood, is an unthreatening place. The public benches outside a suitably discreet Starbucks are graffiti-free. There’s a healthy selection of organic living and ethical trade shops. Trees line the roads and abundant playing fields, their fallen leaves the only litter on the pavements.
On the Metropolitan Police’s recently launched ‘crime map’ – which offers almost street-by-street crime statistics – the area is similarly easy on the eye. Its collective subwards are coloured blue and yellow, depicting ‘low or no crime’ through to a relatively unmenancing ‘average’ crime count.
Its parent borough, Richmond-upon- Thames, boasts the lowest crime rate in the capital, logging 1.45 crimes per 1,000 people in August compared with 3.56 in table-topping Westminster.
The mix of private homes and council-owned blocks along the Rocks Lane thoroughfare maintains Barnes’ well-kept air and sense of safety. ‘Who are you looking for?’ asks long-term housing association tenant Mrs Watling as she comes out of her block, demonstrating that this is an area where people keep an eye out for each other. ‘I’m not worried at all about safety here,’ she says.
Yet outside Number 17, a private house along the street, is a placard warning intruders: ‘No Trespassers. Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again.’
According to the experts, looking at a map to find out how much crime happens on your doorstep doesn’t always affect people’s sense of safety in a rational way. ‘The problem with all of these things is over-generalising. Feeling safe consists of a number of levels,’ explains Dr George Erdos, visiting psychology lecturer at Newcastle University.
People in low crime areas won’t always feel secure, while those in high crime neighbourhoods won’t necessarily feel overly threatened. What accounts for this mismatch between perceptions of crime and the reality? And what can landlords do to ensure that their residents feel safe in their homes regardless?
The map might indicate that you live in a relatively safe area, but perhaps the newspaper carries news of yet another stabbing.
‘People’s perceptions about their safety are in part determined by the kind of media coverage they see,’ says Professor Tim Wheeler, chartered psychologist and safety specialist at the University of Chester.
Or perhaps, suggests Dr Erdos, you or someone you know has been a victim of crime recently. ‘That sticks in your mind. It makes you forget the statistics.’
And bad news travels. ‘Everybody hears about it… even if the map says it’s really safe, people won’t feel that it is.’
Professor Wheeler concurs. ‘The most powerful [influence on feelings of safety] is if you know somebody who’s been a victim… Without question, people’s subjective perception of risk is a lot higher than the objective reality.’
The latest official British Crime Survey bears this out. Despite national crime rates falling, two-thirds of people believe it has risen (see box below). In one sense, in areas where crime is low, misperceptions of crime are unfortunate for those worrying unnecessarily, but since the odds are against them falling victim to crime in real terms, this is less of a problem.
But many social landlords operate in high crime areas which burn amber and red on crime maps. They can’t afford to be so sanguine. According to the BCS, in 2007/08 the risk of being a victim of any household crime was higher in the most deprived areas compared with the least deprived areas of England – 21 per cent compared with 15 per cent. And there were more than double the number of burglaries per 10,000 households in the 20 per cent most deprived areas than the least deprived 20 per cent.
‘If you’re in a high crime area, what do people do?’ asks Professor Wheeler. ‘They tend to respond by trying to make themselves feel safer. So the burglar alarm goes in, additional locks, a steel door. Some people put bars on the windows.’
It’s not uncommon for social landlords to reinforce doors and windows and even fire-proof letter boxes. But, he adds, this can pour further fuel on the fire, encouraging residents to develop a ‘fortress’ mentality. ‘Those security things, particularly if they’re very intrusive, [can] reinforce the sense of vulnerability that they are in a high crime area, so it’s almost a self-perpetuated fear of crime.’
This is when the concept of ‘learned helplessness’ can kick in. ‘Usually people who live in [the most deprived areas] have no choice,’ says Dr Erdos. ‘There’s very little they can do about the crime, they just have to accept it. And that’s a big problem.’
‘Learned helplessness is when you are in a situation when your action has no bearing on the outcome. To some extent the people who live in those areas develop learned helplessness and they become very fatalistic. Sometimes they complain to the police… but very often nothing happens [so they see no point in doing it next time].’
The good news? ‘There’s a lot you can do to help people feel more safe, both subjectively and objectively,’ says Professor Wheeler.
Elaine Browne is the neighbourhood investment manager for Bromford Group. She says there is a ‘two-pronged approach to that – first the fabric side of things, then the community cohesion side.
Over the past few years Ms Browne and her housing association colleagues have been regenerating the Wychall Farm estate in Kings Norton, on the outskirts of Birmingham. The West Midlands Police crime map glows orange around Wychall Farm, denoting its place among the top 10 per cent crime areas on the force’s patch. The adjacent area is fierce red, among the highest 5 per cent. Despite this, says Ms Browne, Wychall Farm residents are feeling increasingly unthreatened. ‘Four years ago we did a survey [of 300 homes] about how safe people felt and 34 per cent said they didn’t feel safe and secure.’ Bromford repeated the exercise six months ago. Fewer than a quarter – 24 per cent – felt unsafe. That has since gone down to 12 per cent, she adds.
Admittedly, police have told Ms Browne that the area’s crime has fallen by 60 per cent. But something has caused both the actual drop in crime, and increased the sense of safety, despite crime remaining high relative to elsewhere. So what is Bromford’s secret?
On the ‘fabric’ side of things, the landlord began by tackling the physical environment, in consultation with residents. ‘The [existing] properties themselves were obviously defective. The rest of the infrastructure was not supporting the estate. All these factors came into play.
‘One of the main things was about the access into the site. There were a lot of alleyways and it was important to block them off so that there was one route in and one route out.’ As well as bulldozing the network of potential hiding places, the new design incorporated defensible space. There was secondary glazing for properties on the estate’s boundaries and more CCTV.
Since then, there’s been a strong drive to maintain the appearance of Wychall Farm. ‘The environment was a big factor,’ says Ms Browne. ‘Obviously that’s a big part of people not feeling safe. If the area looks crap, they’re going to feel the same.’
Now a caretaker makes daily rounds of the estate, and there’s a junior warden scheme in which 10 to 15-year-olds pick up litter and clean off graffiti on Saturday mornings. What Ms Browne calls ‘environmental crime’ – arson, vandalism – has dwindled significantly.
‘We’ve done a lot of community cohesion work where we’ve worked with the young people. Instead of going graffiti-ing on a crime basis, they’re doing it on an art project basis. Because we’ve involved the community from the beginning they actually feel they’ve got ownership and control. It’s not about a landlord batting a big stick. It’s about people doing it for themselves now.’
Again, she has the statistics to prove it. Between 2002 and last year, residents’ approval of their estate’s appearance rose from 53 per cent to 88 per cent.
Back in leafy south west London, stock transfer association Richmond Housing Partnership, takes a similar approach to making its 10,000 odd households feel safer. Community compliance manager Hajinder Dhillon runs a community development scheme aimed at ‘getting residents to take ownership of where they live’.
Mr Dhillon says that encouraging people to take responsibility for their neighbourhoods dispels fear of crime by helping to prevent it. For example, he says, where people feel able and inclined to report crime, prosecutors are more likely ‘to get a positive outcome in a court of law’.
Making criminals think their chances of being caught are increased is a good deterrent, confirms Professor Wheeler. ‘Burglars can be emboldened because they’ve hit a block of flats and there hasn’t been a rapid police response,’ he says. ‘A typical pattern is for them to hit the same place two weeks later, because the insurance company will have paid up and there will be a new flat screen TV and DVD player.’ Of course, preventing repeat performances in turn diffuses the sense that an area is an unsafe, villain’s paradise.
The professor also advocates social landlords employing people like Mr Dhillon to make residents feel safer. ‘It’s this notion that people are reassured not so much by the cameras and the technology, but they are reassured by wardens and patrols. Real people.’
‘We try to reassure our customers that we are accessible and we will do whatever we can to resolve their complaints,’ says Mr Dhillon. But it isn’t always easy.
‘Around 30 per cent of our team’s time can go on trying to manage perceptions,’ he estimates, particularly when it comes to anti-social behaviour. ‘Managing expectations is difficult.’
What one person considers threatening anti-social behaviour – young people hanging around, for example – can be normal behaviour for others. ‘Calling a little old lady names, to the kids that’s harmless and humorous,’ says Dr Erdos. ‘They think it’s funny to take the piss out of a little old lady and shout at her. To her it might be threatening.’
Proving his own point about perceptions, Mr Dhillon takes a different stance. ‘I feel really sorry for the youths of today… the older generations are really apprehensive when they see groups of youths hanging around on estates. We’ve got to be very careful not to paint all children with just one colour. They’re just hanging around.’
Mr Dhillon’s solution is talking: trying to get each party to see the others’ point of view. ‘We say we need to try and understand what makes you feel afraid.’
For some, that will be a blob of colour on a crime map – red, yellow or otherwise. Feelings of fear and safety are highly subjective. But landlords can reassure their tenants by striving to make their neighbourhoods safer in reality – and in people’s minds.
Perception one, reality nil
- Two-thirds of people believe crime nationally has increased in the last two years, despite it falling.
- Two-fifths of people think crime in their local area has increased.
- Those who read national tabloids are more likely to think that crime nationally has risen ‘a lot’.
Source : British Crime Survey, 2007/08