UK : Where have all the preventers gone?

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A personal impression of crime prevention in England & Wales from Paul Ekblom, Professor of Design Against Crime, Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, London

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It’s rather difficult to see exactly, after nearly a year in office, what the UK’s Coalition government is doing vis-à-vis  crime prevention in England & Wales. Much of what has happened appears rather ominous – in some cases clearly negative. Some of the cuts have been in direct response to the economic crisis; others are arguably more ideological. Police numbers are being significantly cut – and in practice this includes some very experienced crime reduction specialists who will doubtless take their knowledge with them when they leave. The National Policing Improvement Agency has seen its role (which covered a range of crime prevention training responsibilities) drastically reduced to ‘Cost effectiveness’ and ‘Critical national services’. Similar redundancies are taking place in local government which doubtless will affect community safety departments.

The government has frozen and archived the highly informative Crime Reduction website and the National Probation Service website, so far without any equivalent replacements. The Youth Justice Board, which has pioneered many imaginative yet rigorous programmes of prevention mainly implemented through local Youth Offending Teams, has been reabsorbed back into the Ministry of Justice. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, which in the last few years had begun at last to take an interest in crime, has been merged with the Design Council – not in itself a bad thing but the numbers of staff are diminished. The Design and Technology Alliance against crime, run through the Design Council, is coming to the end of a three-year life and we are unclear about what, if anything, will replace it (and the Home Office official supporting the Alliance is departing, like many colleagues, under a staff reduction scheme).

On the more constructive side, social research work continues, now split between the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office. The government are changing the legislation on antisocial behaviour and have announced £10m funding for the Positive Futures programme which uses sport and other creative activities to engage with young people and help them turn their lives around; and £4m for small local organisations working in communities across the country to prevent young people getting involved in gang and knife related crime – but how any professional preventive expertise and research-based knowledge is to be injected into the programmes is unclear.

The government has become critical of the cost-effectiveness of imprisonment – a radical change from the ‘prison works’ assertion of the previous Conservative administration. It has made available (www.police.uk) local crime maps. Unfortunately these relate only to the last month’s crime incidents, which as we all know are volatile; and there is little comparative information. There is also a danger that the use of raw crime counts out of context will stigmatise communities and unfairly label them as high crime areas. Perhaps worse, in terms of awakening fear of crime and an excessive interest in punitiveness, there is a Twitter section on the website saying for example, ’49 minutes ago… Robbery in St Leonards…’ which streams-in incidents over quite a wide geographical area.

We are still awaiting the broader Home Office interpretation of the Coalition government’s overarching vision – the ‘Big Society’. This seeks to focus on three themes: community empowerment, opening up public services, and social action. All highly relevant to crime prevention and community safety, and all laudable in principle.  The one tangible strategic development to emerge so far is the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill. This proposes to replace local Police Authorities (currently members of each authority are a mix of magistrates and elected representatives from local councils, but nominated rather than directly elected for this role) with directly elected police and crime commissioners. The aim is to improve police accountability, but the concern is that policing and crime prevention will become even more politicised than it is already.

Where have all the preventers gone? Watch this space – but better bring a book.