It took a Riot! Recall the Regeneration Select Committee?

I was out in London and Manchester during the riots. Those of us working in regeneration recognise many of the rioters. As a group they are the greatest challenge. Aggressive, disaffected, criminal.

But you can’t generalise. People have different backgrounds and different motives. But lack of respect for police, government, elders, lack of opportunity for well paid work or education or status other than through crime, and involvement in crime are widespread.

We have all met these kids and talked to them. They are often streetwise and talented and put those skills to work in a variety of legal and illegal ways. They aren’t even necessarily amoral. Amongst themselves there can be strong codes of behaviour.

In larger groups, organised by messaging, they have power and strike fear. Like a guerrilla army they can move fast and melt away. Some are armed in various ways and some are prepared to use violence.

It is criminality. It is a failure of policing. It is exacerbated by a lack of opportunity.

In the blame game that politicians are currently playing many of us carry a portion of the blame. It is not the fault of any one group of people although it is easy for politicians to blame the kids. We know that we can do something about this. We can build places that don’t concentrate these kids in gang dominated sink estates. We can fund organisations like Youth Charter for Sport and charismatic leaders like Geoff Thompson. We can provide accessible education and training and ensure that police community relations are strong and productive. It’s a long list.

We can’t easily sort the economic changes the global economy is imposing on these kids. But we are not powerless and it is almost certainly cheaper to pay for prevention than for policing, clean up and rebuilding.

And what is happening is not entirely new and we could have seen it coming.

Back in early 2009 in my update to the igloo Regeneration Fund board under the heading political priorities/electoral cycle I said:

‘The general situation is as follows:

  • Regeneration has almost dropped off the Treasury/No.10/BERR political agenda (although still championed by CLG and the Secretary of State in particular)
  • This is primarily because of a pre-election focus on jobs, credit crunch and recession
  • However deprivation and youth unemployment are increasing and see Scarman report for historic lessons
  • Civil unrest caused by high levels of unemployment will bring the political focus back to regeneration (Hazel Blears has recently made this observation)
  • Public sector financial resources, particularly capital, will be extremely limited
  • New forms of public funding eg JESSICA and Accelerated Development Zones will become much more important
  • There will be an election within 12 months and a change of government bringing new policies (and lower public spending)

Over that summer I reread the Scarman report and over the following year I was talking publicly about the risk of riots in the summer of 2010. And then the rapid rise in unemployment levelled out (although youth unemployment was still rising) and the spectre of a summer of riots receded.

Then early this year, as youth unemployment began to stabilise and marginally recede, in this blog I said ‘I suspect that the Tesco riots a couple of weeks ago in Stokes Croft in Bristol may not prove the harbinger of a summer of violence although levels of youth unemployment do potentially sow dangerous seeds and the summer is the most popular season for local disorder.’ How almost wrong can you be!

It would be wrong for the regeneration industry to cry ‘I told you so’ or ‘Give us money to stop the riots’ but I suspect that when the inevitable inquest on the events of the last few days is completed we will find that the extended period of high youth unemployment and deprivation concentrated in some of our inner urban areas that we have seen will turn out to be one of a number of contributory factors.

Both of the last two Governments have been conscious of this risk and perhaps there was nothing they could have done to have pre-empted these riots but I don’t think anyone will be betting against a significant reassessment of political priorities in the coming months. Inevitably the proposed Police cuts will come under the spotlight, particularly with the Olympics inLondonnext summer, but equally the cuts in youth services, particularly those to social enterprises and third sector organisations, will be reappraised.

In London, the targeting of the Outer London Fund on High Street improvements now looks either deeply ironic or incredibly far sighted! This quote says it all ‘The largest single award, £715,000, went to Enfield Council to improve shop fronts, make use of vacant shops, create a new street market in Ponders Green and refurbish street lighting and canopies.Enfield will also be supporting the Edmonton Green Food and Music Festival as well as contributing to the Christmas Festival lights.’

Even though the shops are trashed at least the good people of Enfield, one of the places hit by rioting, will have Christmas lights! The list of winners and the list of places hit by rioting is not a close match. It will be interesting to see if this changes in the next round.

Talking to senior colleagues at the coal face of the current situation the initial consensus is that there are some differences and some similarities between this week’s riots and those of 1981. There is still alienation between many of the rioters and the police but probably less of a wholesale community animosity towards the police. The lack of employment prospects is also familiar although the character of it is different. These riots are not triggered by a sudden meltdown in an entire industry sector (manufacturing in the late 70s/early 80s) but rather by a combination of increased inequality between high and low earners and the limited prospects the young unemployed have of legally achieving high earning, high status jobs.

This is the big difference with the early eighties. There is no political cause here. This is criminality. But it is also wrong to think that looking for a cause for criminality means excusing it.

Back in the early eighties, when talking about the huge investment in regeneration led by the then Conservative Government, Michael Heseltine used the phrase ‘It took a riot’. It will be interesting to see how the current Government reacts but judging by the number of politicians returning prematurely from holiday, whether kicking and screaming or otherwise, it looks unlikely that ‘do nothing’ is an option. Asking the Communities Select Committee to reopen their inquiry into regeneration would be a quick way to get some sensible people to reach some early conclusions about what needs doing.

4 Responses

  1. A good article, but I fear, like too many others (good and not so good!) it implies that the problems in society that lay behind these riots lie only with the least well off. As Peter Oborne of the Telegraph set out in his excellent recent piece http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/peteroborne/100100708/the-moral-decay-of-our-society-is-as-bad-at-the-top-as-the-bottom/ it is likely that the riots are linked to “the moral disintegration in the highest ranks of modern British society”. He goes onto cite bonus grabbing casino bankers, ‘lying and cheating politicians’, tax avoiding corporations and billionaire businessmen and a ‘universal culture of selfishness and greed’, as evidence of such a malaise.

    For me this analysis seems far closer to the truth than any that focuses on a particular group in society. No one lives in a vacuum. In many places rich and poor live side by side (though never the twain…..) but even where they do not the values of our consumer society, driven by increasing individualism are constantly reinforced by a ubiquitous media.

    It is political decisions that have taken society along this path and it is political decisions that can begin to plot a different route. You touched on an important area that of increasing income inequality. As demonstrated by Professors Wilkinson and Pickett in The Spirit Level there is now overwhelming peer- reviewed evidence that increasing income inequality leads to greater social problems affecting all levels of society. In a sense that conclusion is almost intuitive as, if in a society wealth is not distributed reasonably fairly (although it does not have to be equally distributed – differences can be tolerated) resentment and jealousy are likely to increase at the expense of trust and a sense of community.

    I believe that it is time for all of us to take a long hard look at ourselves to see where we are and where we are going and to ask ourselves whether what we have still represents in its totality, what we would like to think of as a decent society.

  2. I agree with Andrew, but I suspect that as ‘regeneration professionals’ we need to let local communities lead the debate rather than crowding in with our bottom-drawer-full of stalled projects and four-colour masterplans.

    For us, I think we have to debate frankly what “aspiration” can do well and what it does badly. Aspiration was at times a means of trying to pull up deprived neighbourhoods by using the power of the sharp elbows of the middle class. But, I suspect, sometimes it suited aspirational households and neighbourhoods to turn their backs on their poorer relations. An aspiration for your neighbours is far more noble and regenerative than is an aspiration for yourself alone.

  3. Thoughtful and provocative – and it is always a good sign when someone concedes a misjudgement, something one or two of our leaders would benefits from learning.

    I am struck by the similarity to 70s-80s style football hooliganism: a predictable demographic, with some surprising fellow travellers, a contempt for authority and the odd ‘slap’ from a cop as a cost of doing business. And the slowest and thickest get caught.

    So I offer another report, not Scarman, but Taylor – on football fans: “If you treat people like prisoners of war, you should not be surprised if they act like it”.

  4. I suggest you read today’s New York Times editorial. It deserves a wide audience, as does the lead article in this blog.

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