A few weeks ago while out canvassing I spent ten minutes talking to someone about anti-social behaviour on their estate. They told me about how it had once been a great place to live, but as the years turned to decades, the community began to break down. It’s clear many of the houses and flats had begun to do likewise.
Kids play football on the grass that divides some of the houses from the flats (much to the annoyance of some of the residents), but you don’t see anyone much older out on the estate – even on a bright spring morning. Not many people answer their doors either.
Why? It’s hard not to imagine the anti-social behaviour is a major factor.
It sounds so innocuous doesn’t it? “Anti-social behaviour” (and the accompanying much maligned and mocked ASBOs). Yet it covers a range of issues from persistently disruptive behaviour through to graffiti and even violence. This estate has had to deal with a broad cross section of these problems. Residents have seen drug dealing taking place openly in broad daylight. Older people are terrified to leave their homes after dark (and often during the day) thanks to what they describe as gangs on street corners.
To me this sounded like something out of “The Wire”. After all this estate is in a relatively affluent part of outer London, not the west side of Baltimore. But that doesn’t mean that these concerns aren’t real, legitimate and hugely impacting upon their quality of life.
Anti-social behaviour isn’t confined to estates either. I live on an otherwise quiet side street in an otherwise quiet part of London. But I also live between two pubs. On a Friday night it’s not unusual to get woken up by singing, shouting and the occasional glass being smashed in the street outside. That doesn’t unduly bother me – but for older residents it might. No-one calls the police, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem.
Today Ed Miliband has brought anti-social behaviour back to the forefront of Westminster discourse. Of course in the country at large the issue has never left the agenda. But I fear that Ed Miliband’s plan to have police frogmarch offenders straight back to their victims to make amends is symptomatic of Labour’s approach to anti-social behaviour – well meaning but flawed. The resident I spoke to a few weeks ago had stopped calling the police over problems in their area precisely because officers would knock on their door and report that they had dealt with the problem. Of course that meant those who had been reported to the police knew who their accusers were.
This new plan – whilst having the potential as part of a restorative justice strategy (which Imran Ahmed has spoken movingly of on these pages before) – could just exacerbate the unwillingness of victims to contact the police. That’s a fear that is abundantly obvious to anyone who has discussed ASB on the doorstep.
Labour made many great strides on community policing, youth work and the modernisation of many of Britain’s crumbling estates. But when it comes to the anti-social behaviour epidemic – and make no mistake, that’s what it is – it’s hard not to feel like we diagnosed the problem, but we didn’t cure it. Whilst I’m delighted that Miliband is bringing the Westminster agenda into line with the public (as it always should be), I still think our politicians are struggling to understand the scale and scope of such problems.
Only when they do, can they begin to solve them.