The Labour mayor of Tower Hamlets on what the east London borough is doing to prevent knife crime.
When a violent attack happens on our streets, as a community we go through something similar to the stages of grief: fear, anger, disbelief and then acceptance but searching for answers. We all want action which will stop another family going through this pain or another life needlessly lost. Effective community safety is not just about enforcement but looking at the bigger picture and we all play our role in that.
The response after a violent incident happens is often to call for more money or focus into this initiative or changing that law. This is happening to our children, our neighbours and our friends. Emotions naturally run high. We all agree it has to stop so we need our whole community and all our institutions and bodies to work together.
While reported crime had been falling for a long time in the UK, it has started to rise again more recently. One must always remember, though, that there is only a limited link between recorded levels of crime and public fear of crime. The latter often lags the former, or has a spike in response to a particular event or series of events. But anxiety is understandable, and we can readily identify with the families of victims – it is only human.
In the aftermath of fatal attacks I’ve spoken to the victims’ families, their neighbours and those concerned for the safety of our community. The question is both what we as a community can do, and what the authorities can do to protect us.
As a council, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets is are already taking action. We are clear that others – such as the police – are in the front line and need to be supported, but also that many others, down to the grass roots, have a role too.
We have tried, with stretched funds, to do more. As part of our public health approach to tackling violence a unique project has been set up in the Royal London Hospital, funded by us to ensure those involved in knife crime are identified and offered appropriate support to move away from this criminal lifestyle. The only one of its kind in London, the project went live in March 2019. To date 33 young people have been engaged.
We’ve stepped in following the loss of over 200 police officers in Tower Hamlets since 2010 and invested £3m in additional police officers as I know our residents want to see more police on the beat. Their work is focused on what residents have told me are priorities. In 2018 the council funded police alone made over 350 arrests and conducted 460 stop and searches, all in relation to tackling the drug problems and associated violence.
We are plugging the gaps austerity has caused despite our own core funding from government being 64 per cent less compared with 2010. We’ve had to do what we can and use ratepayers money for resources that our community needs. It should really be coming from central government, but our residents want results not excuses, and rightly so.
As a council we are investing in a range of initiatives aimed at prevention and early intervention. We fund a huge drug rehabilitation programme. We take tough action against businesses that sell knives to young people. We’re investing in our youth service so we have a six day a week provision in every single area of the borough, run from 18 youth hubs supplemented by many other projects. It’s one of the best funded youth services in London and our early years provision helps families. But we need to review it to check we are deploying it in the right ways.
Getting young people engaged and in activities is one way of stopping them falling in with the wrong crowd. During the school holidays we fund a huge programme of sports and activities and last year alongside this provided 20,000 meals to tackle holiday hunger. We have to work with schools and pupil referral units and places where people can fall through the cracks.
We work with young people because of the risks they face and the need to provide, where we can, nourishing and supportive activity. In partnership with organisations such as Streets of Growth, we empower young people to take responsibility for their own lives and do things for themselves through careers guidance, performing arts programmes, street work and health programmes.
Taking a holistic approach means tackling anti-social behaviour which can be a gateway into more serious violence, and intervening early and ensuring people feel valued in their communities. It also means tackling inequality and getting people to realise their potential through initiatives like our employment scheme which successfully got 5,000 people into work or training last year. This changes lives, and we hope sets people on a different course away from violence.
We need our community to have pride in their area. We have invested in a “designing out crime” officer to improve road layouts and lighting and in removing graffiti which can encourage anti-social behaviour.
We can do all that work – but on its own it won’t stop violence. It’s just one part of the solution. It can’t be ok that people think they need to carry a weapon to protect themselves.
This needs to change. Parents, schools and community leaders all have a role in reinforcing this message. It’s an issue where we all play our role.
John Biggs is the elected Labour mayor of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.
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