Noone can fail to have been shocked by the events that we’ve seen in London and elsewhere this week. And it goes without saying that the actions of those involved are inexcusable. Also, that demoralised, under-resourced police officers are having to struggle to re-establish the public order and safety that all people in our communities deserve.
David Cameron was wrong however to describe the situation as “plain and simple”; it’s anything but. I hope that when this is done we can reflect and reprioritise prevention and early intervention activities with communities and individuals who have become increasingly disengaged. Yes, wrongdoers should certainly be punished but we need to look at how to rehabilitate young people who have done wrong. We also need to recognise that disinvestment in youth and community services may save money in the short term but it can, at least indirectly, lead to exactly the kinds of circumstances we’ve had this week.
I lived in Lambeth for a long time and until recently I was working with the Lambeth Crime Prevention Trust in Brixton, one of the ‘hot spots’. This agency engaged many young people in meaningful leisure and community activities and provided education about being a citizen, avoiding knife crime, resisting peer pressure etc. However, it wasn’t deemed to be a priority service and consequently it lost its funding and closed down in March this year.
Closer to my current home, in Edinburgh the ‘North Edinburgh News’, a community charity based in Pilton which promoted positive views about the disadvantaged areas it covered and was able to provide a whole range of community information and to support networking also lost its funding and closed in March this year. It would have needed £30K per year to continue.
In no way should we condone the violence and looting. However, we do need to try to understand and consider how we are running our society and what priorities we have within it. As a final point on this really sad blog, when I saw the scenes from Clapham Junction on Tuesday night I was reminded of Polly Toynbee’s description when she undertook an experiment, flawed of course because she always had the option to go back to her ‘real’ life, of trying to live on the minimum wage in Clapham Park estate. Her overwhelming experience was of feeling excluded from an individualistic, materialistic society where we and others assess our worth based on what we own; the Arding & Hobbs store she described in the following extract subsequently became the Debenham’s store that was ransacked on Monday.
“Well-worn and familiar tracts of the city devoted to pleasure, art, eating, clothes and shopping disappeared of my map. Why wander down the King’s Road when everything there is denied to you? Oxford Street and Regent Street vanished from my route. So did Clapham Junction and Arding and Hobbs. So did Shaftesbury Avenue, the National Theatre, the Albert Hall and the Barbican. Wherever I walked, everything I passed was out of bounds, things belonging to other people but not to me. No Starbucks sofas beckoned any more, no Borders bookshop, no restaurants, not even the most humble cafe. This is what ‘exclusion’ means, if you ever wondered at this modern wider definition of poverty. It is a large No Entry sign on every modern pleasure. No Entry to the consumer society where the rest of us live. It is a harsh apartheid. Exclusion makes the urban landscape a forbidding place where every brightly lit shop doorway designed to welcome you in to buy, buy, buy is slammed shut to one-third of the population. Shopping for the meanest food staples under rigorous cost-controls is no fun, and it becomes less so every time.”
Toynbee, Polly (2003) Hard Work: Life in Low-Pay Britain London: Bloomsbury Publishing