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Michael Meadowcroft & Liz Bee
 

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Life at the sharp end

by Michael Meadowcroft

Amidst a mass of worthy and sometimes constructive comments in the columns of the YEP on the huge problem of anti-social behaviour on Leeds estates there appeared the gratuitous line, "Those from the self-styled liberal elite will find their 'little Johnny needs to be nurtured not punished' ideology finding little support' amongst the victims," with the additional observation that "those sort of people don't live on these estates", ("Comment" 18 September). Certainly no-one admitting to such a description is likely to live in such areas, but that is not to suggest that those who do live there are unable to see the failure of illiberal policies.

Reading the simplistic articles ascribing our current malaise to the failings of liberalism, one would think that we had been enjoying the fruits of liberal governments for decades. Alas, it is over eighty years since the Liberal party was in a majority in Leeds or in Westminster. What we have had recently has been eighteen years of Conservatism, with increasingly draconian policies on law and order, followed by six years of new Labour, turning the screw still more tightly. And we're told that the situation on our streets is worse than ever! So, where does the blame lie, insofar as it is a failure of political ideology?

Look at the facts. We have more police now than we have ever had in our history. We have more people in prison than ever before. We have CCTV cameras all over the place. Drug czars have come and gone. We have ever more inventive laws passed to control young people. And the problem gets steadily worse. Far from this being the fault of a "liberal elite", it is the abject failure of conservative attitudes which, particularly over almost quarter of a century, have believed that punishment and repression work. The dismal consequences of that policy are seen all around us.

The serious disease of violent, abusive, anti-social behaviour has been treated with a particular brand of medicine by successive illiberal governments. Faced with the manifest failure of that medicine to cure the illness, rather than change the prescription, they simply keep increasing the dose! It may appear logical to good, honest hardworking Leeds people that tough laws and severe punishment will be effective against local hooligans but, as the pages of the YEP show, day after day, it just isn't true. The horrendous conditions in so many parts of our cities are far from being the result of liberal values, but rather the lack of them.

The problem is so acute that whether it is nature or nurture is virtually academic today. The issue requires far more intellectual rigour than it - or for that matter, pretty well any issue - receives today. It needs thorough analysis and, built on the conclusions coming from it, an integrated package of policies, with the finance and the will to implement them.

The YEP editorial jibe about certain types of people not living on difficult estates actually highlights a vital point. Almost everyone professionally involved with "rough" areas, commutes to them. Most teachers, doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, social workers and even many of their elected councillors, live miles away in the proverbial leafy suburbs, and the image they give is that success is to move out. Only vicars now routinely live "on the patch." Add to that the message that "there is no such thing as society", and therefore no reason to respect it, and one begins to see why thuggery and insensitive self interest bit by bit replace consideration and self respect. A further blow to respectability was the disastrous policy of selling council houses cheaply, which meant, and was seen to mean, that many poorer families in bad housing had no chance of a transfer to better accommodation. The increasing lack of hope damaged any determination to work for a better future and undermined a willingness to be involved in the local community. And even if parents were still keen to maintain their integrity, all too often their teenage children sought instant gratification and became uncontrollable.

We need to look at some of the successes. For instance, the Houghleys, at the bottom of the Wyther Park estate, used to be as rough as any part of Leeds but the demolition of the worst bits, and their replacement with private and housing association dwellings, as fought for by my former council colleague, David Selby, has provided a better balance and made a big difference to the area. Or take the tiny but significant example of the row of glazed tiles designed by local children and which ornament the street wall on Burley Road. None have been damaged (save one by a Council workman) and there is no graffiti on any wall. Society has its unwritten rules.

Deterrence is a consequence of the certainty of being caught, and not the toughness of the punishment. If a seventeen year old knows that only one in six of burglars is caught, the punishment is immaterial - the odds in his favour are too good. Any motorist today knows the truth of this. The penalty for speeding is the same as before, but the existence of sophisticated cameras has dramatically increased the likelihood of being caught, and this is changing driving behaviour. The vast proportion of crime is detected by the public, not directly by the police. If the relationship between the police and the public is good, then detection rates go up, and deterrence is backed up by the visible community disapproval of anti-social behaviour. Without local active public support, the number of police could be doubled and it would make little difference. But if the community policeman or woman had a small enough patch, and - vitally important - lived in it, the improvement would be dramatic.

Britain's Police Standards Unit is about to get a new director. Paul Evans comes directly from Boston, Massachusetts, where last year the city experienced a thirty-one year low in violent crime. How was this done? The AP press report tells us that "Boston's success in bringing those rates down was due in part to Evans' novel style of coalition-building, forming alliances with other law-enforcement agencies, community organisations, academics and businesses to help develop programs such as summer jobs for at-risk city youth." Rather than make jibes about "liberal elites", perhaps it is high time that Leeds tried a liberal approach.

19 September 2003

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