Although subject to some local flashpoints, the relative calm of North Kensington & Westminster and its youth population over the recent riot period is due in no small part to partnerships involving community leadership, community policing, and the continuity of local regeneration and social and economic development over the last 30 years or so, and which is still tackling some of the most difficult neighbourhoods in London and the UK.
‘Youth’ is not a fixed phenomena, it doesn’t stand still, it is conceived, born and grows up over twenty years or more. Generational continuum is a central dynamic in the life of any community, particularly the adolescent phase. Youth is inquisitive, intuitively creative and full of an energy that sometimes screams out for something to do, some creative action. In the absence of positive options, energy becomes negative, destructive, socially dysfunctional, and feeds the inward and outer shoots of sociopathic tendencies witnessed in the recent rioting.
Youth budgets and support programmes are the first to be cut in periods of austerity when common sense dictates that they should in fact be maintained or even increased. Financing youth services is currently a discretionary not a statutory duty. This should change – now. Lack of creative and constructive engagement breeds destructive and dysfunctional behaviours. Investment in young people who live in deprived and disadvantaged areas does not provide the return demanded by classical market dynamics, there’s no money in a failing market.
Tribal, criminal activities are not new to this cohort, England has a history of gang warfare and riot, with legislation to prove it. Indeed, each generation produces its own manifestation of criminal gangs and social rage arising from cultural and economic inequalities, and it should not be surprising that this latest expression is through young consumerist violence and criminal theft rather than a real, bogus or imagined ideological rationale. The sight of young thugs firing guns at police as they loot the high street should signal an absolute commitment to the eradication of illegal supply chains that provide weapons to young people.
The almost incidental death of three young men mown down by a car while looking out for their community in Birmingham and the moving response by their families is the real story of these past weeks, not dysfunctional young people expressing naked consumerism perversely mainlined from a culture that encourages trillions of plastic debt as a means of GDP ‘growth’. Calls for moral rectitude are not helped either by examples of incompetence and corruption from within the heart of the English establishment, the pillars of the biggest society: Press, Police, Parliament and Banks. We had to learn from a grieving father in Birmingham the real meaning of ‘morality’ and ‘values’ coming out of all this.
There’s no one root cause for the riots across the country, but a range of economic indicators often associated with social unrest have been on the rise for some time. Britain is undergoing a seismic demographic shift – the consequences of which have yet to be strategically recognised by government or independent policy planners. There are a million more 15-24 year olds in Britain today than a decade ago, and it’s striking that those taking part in these riots are almost all in this age cohort.
The number of out-of-work young people (which excludes those in education) is at the highest level since records began in 1992, in some communities over 20%.
This isn’t just a 2008 deficit/recession problem, youth unemployment has been on the rise for many years and has merely raised its ugly head in this yelping crisis.
London is Britain’s most unequal region by far, in terms of the income gap. According to the definitive report from the New Policy Institute, 19% of the population of Inner London is in the top 10% for income nationwide while 16% are in the UK bottom 10%. In inner London 20% of people own 60% of total income. Add this to the fact that overall UK inequality levels have risen to their highest since the 1960s (or the 1930s, depending on whose statistics you trust). It’s notable that many of the areas affected by the rioting are within touching distance of poorer areas, as is the case in Tottenham where the rioting began, arguably because family and friends were not given the respect demanded of a police shooting tragedy. An hour between a senior police representative and the immediate family of the victim could have defused what subsequently kicked off a nightmare for the people of Tottenham and for those who suffered in the explosive epidemic that followed.
Whether anyone likes it or not, London has a high and growing proportion of families entirely dependent on benefits. According to a recent European Union study, there are 600,000 people under 25 in Britain who have never had a day’s work in their lives. This is an abject failure of domestic economic policy spanning decades.
London’s local authorities have borne much of the brunt of the Government’s austerity package – their grants from Whitehall fell by 11.3% this year and will drop a further 7.6% in 2012/13. And the first services to be cut include youth service budgets – Haringey’s was slashed by 75% leading to the closure of youth clubs. Clearly there are plenty of other factors behind the riots – and none of the above explains precisely why this chaos has erupted here and now. But they underline the fact that in economic and social terms, London and other major UK cities have been in a tinderbox state for some time.
Gang culture is again on the political agenda. Our collective failure to recognise the simple truth underlining growth in youth gangs, that it is an angry, atavistic parody of entrepreneurial economics, will continue to hinder real solutions. We know that there will be more young people seeking economic prosperity over coming years. How they achieve that is our challenge. Here in North Westminster/Kensington, in the middle of London, we have seen increases in gun and knife crime with two young people murdered on our streets over the last couple of years. Some neighbourhoods in London have seen even more death and injury through peer group competition and violence. This has produced a tribal market where young people play out the iconography of ‘youth culture’ with an energy not so far removed from City of London trading pits. Understanding these dynamics, these sad local tragedies, the wider riot phenomena and the exposure of the deep distrust between citizens and their public institutions, must play a key part in the future of Localism Policy, social well-being, and the strategic development of a local economic policy across London and the rest of the country. It’s time this is understood by policy makers and key change agencies.