The riots that hit England’s city and town centres have caused politicians to challenge core assumptions about the nature of modern society. David Cameron asked: “Why? How could this happen on our streets and in our country?”
A policy review launched by the Prime Minister sought to both answer this question and provide solutions through new approaches. This will be challenging, as Cameron himself conceded that the factors varied according to location. In Tottenham, where the first disorder took place, the spark was anger directed at the police, relating to the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan by police as they attempted to take him into custody.
Elsewhere, riots were often merely copycat activities, with thieves taking the opportunity to loot shops. But there were also signs of tensions between different racial communities, the exercise of gang power and a clear expression of alienation by groups of angry young men. Issues touched upon by Cameron as needing to be addressed were the absence of father-figures in the lives of many young adolescents; the perceived lack of discipline in schools; unpunished crime; reward without effort; and generally selfish and irresponsible attitudes within society.
The Prime Minister even threw into the mix his contempt for health and safety legislation, which he said undermined people’s ability to act according to common sense and his contempt for the Human Rights Act – which he said he was determined to reform. All these were symptoms, he said, of a ‘broken society’.
Taken together, the list of social ills listed by Cameron indicates the type of proposals likely to be recommended by his policy review. The fact that the review is to be chaired by work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan-Smith means that the thoughts of the think-tank he founded – the Centre for Social Justice – are particularly relevant.
Gavin Poole, executive director of the CSJ, predicts that the gang culture that afflicts many inner-cities will be at the top of the review group’s agenda, not least as Duncan-Smith himself, when chair of the CSJ, had commissioned a report on the problem. “Action on strengthening families, tackling educational failure, reforming welfare, ending drug and alcohol addiction is foundational to mending Britain’s broken society,” argues Poole.
“And in relation to street gangs, the CSJ has led the debate through its 2009 report Dying to Belong. We urge the Government to make this paper the cornerstone of its new gang strategy. Our solutions, which have been informed by the best domestic and international action and experience, should be set in course over in the immediate, medium and long term.
“They will bring Britain back from the brink of rising gang crime and they include adopting a clear understanding of street gangs and the young people who find their identity in them; committed and visible leadership at the highest levels; gang prevention zones in communities – to lead highly targeted preventative intervention; full multi-agency collaboration and communication, to share key data on gangs and those in them; a new role for specialist anti-gang charities and organisations; and meaningful community engagement to build bridges between police, residents and young people. “
The Centre for Policy Studies is another think-tank that influences Conservative Party policy. It, too, sees gang culture as central to the problem of the riots and has already undertaken in-depth research on the subject. Research leader Harriet Sergeant, a fellow at CPS, says: “I have befriended a gang of black boys in London, who were involved in the riots. The things that upset them are that their skills are useless.
“Michael Gove is doing a lot of work on free schools, but there are very few of them and there is a huge mismatch between what business wants and what schools provide. And then these boys drop out of school at 14 without skills and they are unemployed for life.”
She adds that Job Centres are a waste of money that do nothing to address these problems. “If I was going to set something on fire it would be Job Centres,” she says. “I urge ministers to come with me to see what happens there. They don’t even know how many jobs they are finding. One of their officers said these boys don’t have a rat’s chance of getting a job here. And the boys desperately want jobs and to earn money!”
The CPS believes that one way to challenge gang cultures is to create a more disciplined ethos within the schools serving deprived inner city areas, where many teenagers grow up without an adult male in the home. Its radical solution is for some city centre schools to be run by soldiers. While this may be a step too far for the coalition government, Duncan-Smith has indicated his inclination to take a more interventionist approach to promote marriage and reduce relationship breakdowns. How these aspirations might be converted into clear policy mechanisms is unclear.
Immigration controls may also be considered. Harriet Sergeant points out that employers fill job vacancies from the willing pool of migrant workers, rather than from the unskilled teenagers who drop-out early from school. Whether the policy reaction to this should focus on restricting immigration or by raising skills amongst disaffected teenage boys in failing schools could be one of the key debates in coming months. It could also signify a major divide within the coalition government and in wider politics.
The price of policy failure
The cost of the riots is difficult to calculate. A spokeswoman for the London Borough of Haringey – which includes Tottenham – said: “Businesses are still going through that with insurers. Likewise we have lost council buildings and are waiting on the costs of that. The main costs so far have been officer time.” A spokesman for Birmingham City Council said the clean-up costs for the authority had been between £30,000 and £40,000. Birmingham’s Chamber of Commerce estimated £7m of damage had been inflicted on the city’s buildings – as well as the murder of one man trying to defend his family’s shop.
Many councils in affected areas are engaged in schemes to assist businesses restart trading, including through the use of the Government’s £20m High Street Support Scheme established to assist with riot recovery. Other local programmes include help for people made homeless.