Dave Hill’s London Blog in The Guardian can usually be relied on for serious comment and analysis of London issues. And last week he posted two important posts on the issue of serious gang-related violence in London.

The first highlighted the post-code rivalries between gangs in North-West London:

“Page 81 of my London A-Z shows the streets, parks and stations at the intersections of north Westminster, north Kensington and Brent. But it offers no clues to the alternative cartography that shapes the lives of many people living there – an unofficial map of an urban landscape scarred by violence and divided by fear. …

Territories have been defined and the borders between them guarded and sometimes breached. Incursions resulting in chasings, beatings and robberies are frequent. …

Some who live in the area concerned, including some who are young, are barely touched by this wired, short-fused youthful world. They and it are largely invisible to each other: people move freely and routinely to and from work, local schools, community facilities and places of worship just like anywhere else. Yet an awareness of that other side of neighbourhood life has filtered down even to primary school children. And on the streets young people in particular, even if they have little or no direct connection with it, are acutely conscious of it: at worst, cowed, menaced and controlled. …

 In this increasingly less subterranean world the streets are an excitingly dangerous playground – a place that’s more available, more plausible and more rewarding than the alternatives of education, conformity and long-term, steadier rewards. Yet though that playground may be larger than those at primary school, it is both limited and limiting too. The horizons of those playing crazy, deadly games there don’t extend geographically, intellectually or emotionally even as far as A-Z pages 80 or 82.”
The second cited a report from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at Kings College, “Young People, Knives and Guns”, which concluded that:
“focusing on weapons themselves can be a distraction from addressing the underlying causes of violence and that the most effective interventions engaged instead with “the big questions of disadvantage and social exclusion” along with addressing individual, family and neighbourhood problems. It also found that in the United States locally-based strategies where a variety of agencies work closely together to combine different prevention and suppression approaches have been more effective than “enforcement-led interventions by agencies operating in isolation.””
Later in the same post, Hill describes the experience of youth and community workers he had met:
“There was a strong consensus that every neighbourhood affected and individual involved is different, and that responses should be tailored accordingly. A unified view was also expressed that police officers with listening ears who know a neighbourhood well are an asset, but that vanloads of territorial support group members sent in from elsewhere to conduct stop-and-search blitzes can cause more problems than they solve. Far better that police energy was put into co-ordinating activities across borough lines and building trust with the communities they serve.

There was a general frustration that funding for anti-youth crime and violence projects is too often short-term and under threat, making the sustained action required far more difficult to implement. Outreach work, personal development and gang mediation schemes were all thought to have beneficial effects, so why couldn’t they be backed with more consistency and on a larger scale?”

Certainly my perception for what it is worth is that gang-related violence seems to have got significantly worse in London in the last couple of years or so.  This is not intended to be a political point because I am not sure that there is a simplistic cause and effect between political decisions or for that matter policing decisions and changes in the levels of violence or gang-related activity.
I am also told that at least one magistrates court in London checks through the lists of cases coming up so as to ensure that cases involving rival gangs are scheduled on different days to stop fights breaking out on court premises.
However, what is clear is that a number of things that are happening will clearly be making the situation worse – what the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies call “the big questions of disadvantage and social exclusion”.
Thus, a worsening economic situation with fewer opportunities for young people will create an increasing sense of hopelessness and futility fostering a breeding ground for both extremism and for gangs.  In this context, scrapping the Educational Maintenance Allowance seems a particular folly and which is why Ken Livingstone’s pledge to restore it in London makes sense.
Similarly, cutting local authority budgets will both increase local joblessness but is also likely to mean that specialist youth and community provision will be lost – again hardly helpful in this context.
Tackling the environment in which gangs flourish is the key.  Too often in too many parts of London for too many young people being part of a gang is the only way of having any security – both physical and emotional.  These are not easy issues to tackle, but it is obvious that some policies will make things worse.
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