England is suffering a serious epidemic of knife crime, with a high proportion of teenagers amongst both the victims and perpetrators. A few months ago a teenager was a murder outside my local Tube station; some fresh flowers marked the spot as I walked past it this morning. Many others are similarly finding the epidemic is coming uncomfortably close to home. Two further murders over the weekend have provoked a national political kerfuffle. But much of it misses the point.
The biggest problem in English politics is that too many decisions are taken by the UK government in London, with a weak regional layer (comprising a few city regions based on large conurbations such as London and Manchester), and local government that lacks powers by comparison with any other large country. A striking aspect of this is that different public agencies, such as police, health services, schools, social workers and so on, do not cooperate as much as they should. Each of these agencies reports up to a politician in Westminster, who grandstands to national media agencies according to a news agenda that is set nationally. Leaders of local agencies don’t have the power or incentive to make local cooperation work, and they are liable to have their funding squeezed anyway to make way for for headline-making projects. Any yet so many problems are complex, and require just such local coordination.
It isn’t so bad in Scotland, which has devolved government and Scots-level media, though there are issues there with local government being hollowed out. Wales, which also has devolved government, doesn’t seem to be any better run than England. I don’t know enough about that country to know why, but my impression is that Welsh politicians are quite conservative, and have used their powers to resist reforms that have been taking place elsewhere in the country. But I think the Welsh are slowly learning the implications and responsibilities of devolution the hard way.
Knife crime has complex roots. A lot of it is related to youth gangs, many of which feed on the trade of illegal drugs. Too many teenagers are drawn into these gangs, apparently to make up for the lack of any other community to belong. Gangs find the use of knives is the most cost-effective way of asserting themselves. Many young people feel that they need to arm themselves for their own protection, as well as status. What lies behind this, and has led to the rise youth crime, after a long period when it fell, is, to my mind, the hollowing out of local public services. The Labour government of 1997 to 2010 pumped quite a lot of resources into local institutions, especially after its early austerity years. They did not really believe in local empowerment, and their efforts were clumsy and inefficient. Many of the resources went into the pockets of expensive but superficial management consultants; many agency managers spent time in interminable inter-agency meetings that were slow to take responsibility; anybody involved in public services had to wade through reams of waffle worth nothing more than an education in buzz words. Some reforms, such as those to the probation service, suffered hugely from political grandstanding. There was a tendency to nanny and lecture people rather than empower them.
But for all that a lot of good work was done, which, in some areas at least, achieved a lot. Schooling improved and its scope widened to early years and providing beyond the school day and term time; they were encouraged to work with other agencies. The police established neighbourhood policing teams, which gathered local intelligence, and had the time to deal with antisocial behaviour and work with other agencies. Youth crime fell sharply.
Then came the financial crisis and the push to make cuts to government resources. This went up a few gears with the Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition government of 2010 to 2015. Incoming ministers rightly bridled against the inefficiency of Labour’s public services, and felt that they could do better with less. They drove through drastic cuts. At first this seemed to go quite well. There was indeed a lot of waste to be stripped out, and statistics, including those for crime, appeared sho little if any damage. But they too followed an over-centralised modus operandi. The Lib Dems did try to moderate this – and they helped the creation of city regions to better coordinate agencies in the bigger cities – but it hard not to be overwhelmed by the Westminster way. The cuts were driven from the top by the Treasury on national departmental ministers. Furthermore many ministers followed a flawed model of outsourcing to save money, which fragmented services further and focused them on inward looking performance targets. The big idea for many of the outsourcing agencies was to de-skill services, reducing their ability to deal with complex problems. Experienced, problem-solving professionals were replaced by junior box-tickers. They became unable to facilitate solutions by working with other agencies, so problems were passed on rather than solved. This became even worse after 2015 when the Conservatives governed on their own, and drove the fiscal squeeze though even further. Childrens Centres and youth facilities were closed down; neighbourhood policing was eviscerated; probation and prison services engaged in a battle for survival with little time to help solve society’s wider problems. The epidemic of youth crime followed.
At last England’s political class realises that there is a problem, and is starting to panic. But once again they are reaching for national solutions, or using the crisis to advance national beefs, like police powers. A popular solution is to create a knife-crime “czar”. Others call for a national strategy driven forward by the Prime Minister. All these are tried and tested approaches which rarely acheive more than short term gains on narrow criteria. What is depressing is that it isn’t just politicians that are calling for this sort of approach. One of the leading advocates is Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the former head of police in both London and Manchester. But people like Sir Bernard are part of the problem, not the solution. He was one of the leading advocates of the hollowing out of neighbourhood policing to make way for headline-grabbing specialised regional and national squads.
A few more perceptive commentators point to a more successful approach. Glasgow used to have a huge knife-crime problem – but a coordinated and devolved multi-agency approach reversed it. This is referred to a “public health” approach, to which some politicians are paying lip service. Whether or not this nomenclature is helpful I am not sure. But what needs to be done is to push resources into regional and local multi-agency teams, with the power to rebuild the local institutions that have been so callously swept away and make them work properly. Unfortunately this will not be quick, though it would help with a lot more than knife-crime. The problem was many years in the making and it will take many years to solve.
That is not to say that there are not national aspects to the problem that could do with a bit of a national shove. One of the developments are the “county lines” developed by city gangs going into small towns and rural areas, and connecting the problems in both. But even here we should note that it is in such small towns and rural areas that local institutions are at their weakest, where austerity and economic trends have combined to suck wealth out of local economies. The city gangs are pushing at an open door.
But our over-centralised way runs too deep. Even those who advocate a more decentralised approach rarely seem to understand its full implications. It will take more than this panic for people to understand just how dysfunctional our governing institutions have become.