Local solutions for anti-social behaviour

Remember ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’? It was a good, early New Labour sound bite that seemed to contain a strong policy objective.

The problem for politicians is that crime is an ever-widening topic (I have lost count of the times senior policemen have told me of their exasperation at being forced to count playground fights in their statistics) with complex causes.

Furthermore, public perception on crime does not always match the reality. Overall crime rates are falling but sensational headlines do not give that impression. Fear sells newspapers but the quality of our lives is made poorer because of these false impressions. As the days become shorter, many older people stop going out in the evening because they fear they are more at risk of violent crime at night.

So, will the new drive against anti-social behaviour, jointly launched by the Home Office and Department for Communities and Local Government last month, work?

The announcement promises ‘extra help for victims of anti-social behaviour, a crackdown on those that breach anti-social behaviour orders and new local minimum service standards agreed with the public, that outline what they should expect from councils, police and social landlords to deal with intimidation’.

That all sounds good. But is it a political knee-jerk reaction to the appalling case of Fiona Pilkington and her disabled daughter, who after being tormented by a gangs of children for 10 years, and having received little support from the authorities, killed herself and her daughter in a car fire?  Such cases are terrible and there are important lessons to learn from them, but I am not sure that the best way to deal with anti-social behaviour is by a top-down initiative.

Some of the lessons coming out of this case make me question principles about how in practice we treat anti-social behaviour and crime differently. If someone had identified what was happening to the Pilkington family as a hate-crime (and the family were targeted because of disability) rather than victims of anti-social behaviour then I believe they would have received more support.

No rural paradise

The legal system is less effective in dealing with child perpetrators: gangs of children in particular can get away with ‘blue murder’. This is because of dispersed responsibility between the children themselves and their parents who lack control over them and also because courts will naturally take account of the children’s age when dealing with them.

There also needs to be recognition of the evil that can lurk in rural areas. Resources dealing with anti-social behaviour are concentrated in urban areas where the incidents are greater but the Pilkington case occurred in rural Leicestershire, which shows bullying and harassment are not the preserve of city dwellers.

As a social landlord, tackling anti-social behaviour, whether through court action or supportive intervention, continues to be one of the most intensive use of staff and time. We deal with the issue at all levels, we sit on crime and disorder partnerships, we attend meetings with the police, councils and the local communities, and we deal with individual resident complaints.

The broad definition of what constitutes anti-social behaviour is reflected in residents’ complaints, which covers behaviour that is unreasonable, inappropriate and effects the quality of people’s lives. These complaints cover rowdiness, littering, harassment, abandoned vehicles, noisy neighbours, uncontrolled pets, vandalism, and activities that can impact on a neighbourhood such as drug dealing or prostitution.

This broad definition is part of the problem when it comes to directing resources appropriately because the serious cases do not always receive the time, energy and support they need.

Careful with facts

We also collect statistics on anti-social behaviour. These break down incidents into type, where it is happening, who is committing it and who the victims are. The statistics also define both perpetrators and victims in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and socio-economic factors such as whether they are working or not.

These statistics are revealing about the anti-social behaviour we deal with in our local area. For example, one-third of complaints are about noise and, perhaps more surprisingly, both the majority of complainants and perpetrators are female and in the 25 to 39 age band. So for our residents the main problem is not ‘feral youths’.

However, you have to be careful with statistics because they do not expose the severity of the impact of particular behaviour on an individual.

Which is why I am convinced that although the latest government directive on anti-social behaviour is an understandable reaction to a terrible case, if the aim is to support victims better, then it is more important to enable councils to prioritise their resources properly. Councils should ensure that individuals who need their support the most receive it - accepting that this may mean not dealing with some minor issues that are currently labelled anti-social behaviour. Such prioritisation can only be implemented locally and in agreement with local people.

Finally, I believe Fiona Pilkington would have been better served if she had not exercised her right-to-buy and had a social landlord to advocate on her behalf.

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