Events in the US following the murder of George Floyd are an object lesson in what happens when policing is ripped out of communities. From Minnesota to Seattle via San Francisco, the progressive fetish of slashing police numbers in reprisal for bad law enforcement – both real and politically expedient – has been disastrous for poor communities and businesses in particular. A quiet reversal is in progress. Local legislators drunk on retribution have sobered up in the face of near anarchy. Reality has dawned – public safety is an inequality issue too, one on which all other prosperity (not to mention political survival) rests.
What’s this ideological volte-face got to do with the Government’s long awaited White Paper on Levelling Up? Plenty. Five minutes of research on the huge amount of open-source data available shows that in the UK areas with the highest levels of social deprivation, in metrics ranging from life expectancy to benefit take up, map onto areas with high levels of violent crime and antisocial behaviour. Outside town centres, people in places very similar to where I grew up are marooned in islands of incivility and impunity. It’s going to be very hard to feel levelled up, however much cash that pours into communities for infrastructure improvement, if you can’t enjoy any of it after dark or if the only person in authority you ever see is a parking warden.
Our own ‘defund the police’ moment was another form of vindictiveness – this one wasn’t delivered by left wing wonks but by the disastrous cuts to our criminal justice system in 2010-16. Most Tory politicians, and not a few ministers I’ve spoken with, now recognise the criminal stupidity of this policy. The Prime Minister has even alluded to post financial crisis ‘mistakes’ that resulted in entrenched inequality – an implicit repudiation of the Osborne legacy.
What this vandalism amounted to is critical to the Levelling Up agenda, and if it is missing from the White Paper it will reveal a critical weakness. In large parts of the most vulnerable communities across the country, but most notably in the North of England, there has been a collapse in confidence that the police are able to maintain law and order – so essential to the citizen’s feeling of personal security. High profile investigatory failures, a lack of resources or appetite to deal with quality-of-life crimes, and an obsessive focus on woke policing of offence have all contributed, but it’s the collapse of neighbourhood presence that leads the charge sheet. Aggressive, intimidating and other destructive behaviours cannot be stopped without a trusted, effective and visible police presence, and this decimation had a hugely destructive impact on community morale.
In May 2020, riding on a wave of anti-police sentiment, San Francisco Mayor London Breed slashed the cops budget by $120 million to fund ‘social programmes’. Barely a year later The Golden City had become more dangerous than 98% of other US comparators, a place where tourists feared to tread and which a former mayor described as being ‘plagued with idealism’. Breed completely reversed direction, announcing, ‘It’s time [for] the reign of criminals who are destroying our city…to come to an end’.
Between 2010 and 2019 police funding in Britain was slashed for completely different ideological reasons – by an average of 19%, with the heaviest cuts typically falling in the poorest force areas. The dereliction experienced in these fragile communities would not be unfamiliar to the harassed citizens of the Tenderloin district.
So what to do if you want Levelling Up to stick rather than to be another sticking plaster over neighbourhoods where drug dealing is the primary commercial activity and antisocial behaviour is recreation? The answer is simple: build a police station.
I call this ‘expeditionary social policy’ – direct and tangible intervention by central government – to restore social order. This breaks at least two golden rules of contemporary groupthink criminology: to believe the police can rescue vulnerable communities rather than merely oppress them, and to see criminal behaviour as often predatory rather than an invariable product of said oppression.
Beyond the senior common room there are plenty of people, including among the ranks of chief officers, who will argue that buildings don’t create safety and modern policing needs to be much more agile and responsive. Last year a Daily Mail investigation showed that 50% of police stations were now closed to the public, with some major cities having no front counter service at all. It’s all very well to encourage people to use online services but people want a visible police presence in their neighbourhoods to reverse a culture of lawlessness and impunity that is so corrosive to morale.
Michael Gove has said that one measure of success for the Levelling Up agenda he leads will be creating places people can feel proud of. This is a laudable and achievable aim, but generationally entrenched criminality and antisocial behaviour are antithetical to the prosperity and opportunity that this requires. These forces won’t be dislodged easily. They aren’t amenable to tax breaks or better street furniture.
Imagine the optics – this Government says to communities where the decent majority are cowed and intimidated: this is intolerable. We will use data to identify areas where communities are under siege and open a new 24-hour police presence there, with community police officers who will work with you to turn your community into the sort of place white middle class criminology professors live in. These police officers, hopefully recruited locally, will solve problems, not respond to them with blue lights. They will guide young people away from crime rather than criminalising growing up. They will work with other agencies to provide that crucial foundation of stability, safety and order that will foster, attract and retain enterprise, industry, and investment in jobs and skills. They will be present and familiar, knowledgeable and trusted. They say more clearly than almost any other nudge or technocratic fix: You matter. You are no longer ignored. Justice is no longer in retreat. They are the bridgehead to prosperity.
Of course, this direct approach breaks another golden rule of Levelling Up – devolution. But my argument is that you can’t expect estates sunk in criminality, or the local authorities that have repeatedly failed them, to possess the human and financial capital or possibly the will to achieve success without external help. Sometimes imposed. But the prize is enormous.
From North Wales to Humberside there is an archipelago of communities cut off from the decent lives they crave by violent crime and incivility. There are many ideal neighbourhoods within that embattled swathe on which to test this idea. It is a policy experiment that has acute moral and political resonance as we emerge from the pandemic to remember the sort of country we want to be.
Build back better. Build a police station.
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