Diana Johnson: Austerity leaves void for crime and anti-social behaviour to fester

Do police have sufficient resources to tackle anti-social behaviour?
Do police have sufficient resources to tackle anti-social behaviour?
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MY home city, Hull, is a fantastic city, with many good, hard-working people – they are the salt of the earth and proud of their communities. Many believe in the best community values of solidarity that we see in friendly societies and trade unions. Very sadly, this is currently typified by the way the community has come together in the search for the missing university student Libby Squire.

Like any city or town, however, Hull has its problems, and sadly we now have a generation of young people who have grown up in the austerity years. We could call them the austerity generation. Some have become very difficult to reach. On a visit to a local primary school in my constituency, the Year 6 students told me they did not feel safe in their local area. They mentioned youths hanging around the park who were aggressive and intimidating and they mentioned drug dealing, and they did not like the rubbish and fly-tipping blighting their area.

Hull North MP Diana Johnson.

Hull North MP Diana Johnson.

Nationally, 2.2 million children aged 10 to 17 are worried about crime and anti-social behaviour, and 950,000 children have experienced crime and anti-social behaviour. When I asked constituents to tell me about their experiences, this is what some of them said: “Youths on motorbikes screaming around at all hours making lots of noise and driving dangerously in and out of cars and other motorists causing them to brake hard.”

​Another one said: “Groups of intimidating youths also hanging around shops being verbally abusive and displaying anti-social behaviour around people trying to use the shops, always the same ones, I’ve stopped going now – it’s got beyond a joke.”

And this: “One of our neighbours banged our door with his guests, they were shouting as they were all drunk. I called 999 (because I didn’t have credit to call on 101). The operator said that it’s not an emergency and disconnected my call by advising me to call on 101. A few minutes later they urinated inside my house through the door.”

Feeling safe where we live, work and play is important to us all, and anti-social behaviour can make people’s lives miserable. As our local police and crime commissioner Keith Hunter, who is also the national lead for police and crime commissioners on anti-social behaviour, says, anti-social behaviour is often the start of what can lead to serious criminal behaviour if not dealt with. It is clear that we need to reclaim our public spaces.

He has also said: “When public services and policing retreat from public spaces there will always be a section of society who will seek to use that void for their own criminal or anti-social purposes.

“That hard core encourages others who under different circumstances would not be a problem. Then law-abiding people don’t go to those areas, reinforcing the takeover by the bad element”.

I have to reflect on the fact, therefore, that since 2010 there has been a cut to the Humberside police budget of 31 per cent. Until recently, policing levels in Humberside were down to levels not seen since the 1970s. We have stopped seeing police, special constables and police community support officers on our streets, especially outside the city centre. We have also lost our excellent Hull community wardens.

It is not just about police numbers; equipment has been cut too. For example, we no longer have our own helicopter based at Humberside airport, which could respond quickly, track suspects and identify cannabis factories with its heat-seeking capability. We now share a helicopter with other Yorkshire forces.

The police grant settlement sadly does not produce the central Government funding that police forces need. Humberside’s PCC says that “services are stretched to breaking point”, and is now having to consult on a 6.4 per cent council tax precept increase – a regressive tax, let’s remember, on the “just managing” – to raise the money he needs to stabilise police numbers and meet the increasing costs of the force.

One idea that could be rolled out nationally came from New York in the 1990s, when the mayor adopted a zero-tolerance approach to anti-social behaviour, fly-tipping, rubbish-dumping and graffiti. The outcomes were very positive. If a window was broken it was fixed, if rubbish piled up it was moved, and if people behaved in an antisocial way they were dealt with. If that is to work here, however, it will need stable funding, and the money must come from central Government. It will also need a multi-agency approach, and strong political leadership both nationally and locally.

Diana Johnson is the Labour MP for Hull North. She led a Commons debate on anti-social behaviour – this is an edited version.