Violent crime is tragically rising at an alarming rate. There was something clearly not right on the warm spring evening last month when I arrived to visit community organisers on one of the massive 1960s council estates dotted round north London.
There was no sign of the usual bustle as people got home from work or groups of children played after school. The whole place was eerily deserted.
The reason was as simple as it was shocking: Fear. I was told parents had been warning their children to come straight home without seeing friends. The empty playground next to the community youth centre — almost spotless from under-use — was an unhappy reminder of the damage crime does to Londoners’ lives.
It is no wonder locals are so fearful when, since the start of the year, two young people have been stabbed to death within 15 minutes’ walk of the estate.
I became increasingly appalled and angry as I spoke to residents who were working as hard as they could to improve things. They are fizzing with great practical ideas. Despite all the estate’s problems, the council have still failed to provide the most basic things to make people feel safe such as CCTV or even proper lighting in some of the estate’s darkest and most intimidating corners. There has been no shortage of “engagement”, “consultation” and “we understand your pain” exercises, but precious little action.
One of the organisers told me that they had not seen a police officer on the estate for over three years except in the aftermath of a murder. To add insult to injury, on that occasion the police asked locals to show them the CCTV footage, which of course did not exist.
I have spent a long career in the property business and recently I have been exploring what can be done to improve the quality and number of homes for people on lower incomes. Whenever I visit an estate, it is impossible to miss the connections between badly managed housing and the crime which so often overshadows people’s daily lives. The residents of those estates include many of the least well off in society and they are also the people with the least power to change things for the better where they live.
They are the ones who are most often hit by events such as the outburst of shootings and stabbings across London and beyond that took place over the Bank Holiday weekend. This included the murder of 17-year-old Rhyhiem Ainsworth Barton, shot dead in Southwark. He was the latest of nearly 40 teenagers in the capital to be killed with guns or knives since the start of 2017.
I find it frustrating whenever these awful events take place always to hear Sadiq Khan’s mantra of blaming cutbacks for the ruined lives and bereaved families across our capital city.
He should be showing leadership, imagination, and a sense of urgency. But when he was interviewed on the Today programme on Tuesday, the mayor launched straight into a political attack on government spending.
He then went on to talk about a strategy and a taskforce, which unfortunately are far too often substitutes for action in the public sector.
Of course, the police need enough resources, but as the Conservatives showed when Boris Johnson was Mayor, the key is to focus relentlessly on results and efficiency, freeing officers to get out on patrol.
It is not acceptable that people living in high-crime areas never see a bobby on the beat. This makes the estates they live frightening places and demeans all of us. But we should not be tempted to blame the small number of police who are out on the ground.
Fighting and deterring crime have to be coupled with long-term work to improve the opportunities available to young people. There also needs to be far greater concentration than we are currently seeing on understanding what is driving the drugs culture in our big cities, which appears to be almost entirely responsible for the growth in gang violence.
This is up to the whole of society, not just the people who live on the estates and streets blighted by violent crime.
But the need for long-term strategies cannot be used as a substitute for some of the real practical action that can be taken today. Some of that is about police work – getting far more officers out on the street. Other things can be done right now at relatively low cost include installing CCTV and decent lighting.
Community and youth centres staffed voluntarily by dedicated local people are the beating hearts of healthy estates and providing them should also be a priority. Conservatives need to accept their share of the blame where spending cuts have led to the loss of youth centres. This is one area where I believe the London mayor is right.
Rhyhiem’s mother Pretana Morgan said after his death: “Please let my son be the last”. I hope that with a radical change of approach in City Hall and less petty party politics on all sides we can all do our best to fulfill her wish.