Northern working people and their families care deeply about where they live. Issues such as litter, fly-tipping, graffiti, burnt-out vehicles, dog fouling and street crime are at the top of every neighbourhood’s list of priorities.
It’s a problem that doesn’t seem to resonate with a London-centric based national government. This is backed up by several surveys that inform us that ‘quality of life’ issues – the physical condition of streets and footpaths, the state of parks, boarded up shops and properties, community safety – figure more highly that Whitehall government ministers and top civil servants imagine.
It’s time to get real. Anti-social behaviour (ASB) and low-level street crime is up again both in the North East and elsewhere in the UK. According to the latest British Crime Survey, which is more reliable and valid than the official crime stats, which includes crimes that are not reported or recorded by the Police, there have been 5 million more incidents of ASB in the last decade. A staggering 19m people suffered from incidents of ASB in the last year alone – a rise of 30% from 2011. 13m reported concerns about litter and dumped rubbish. And 6m witnessed vandalism and graffiti. The same survey revealed that in the Northumbria Police area 44% of residents had experienced ASB in their area while in nearby County Durham 40% witnessed ASB.
Anti-social behaviour still plagues the more deprived communities in the region. Too often the victims of this bad behaviour are the poor, working class women, adults with disabilities and some minority ethnic groups living in inner-city wards and the outer-council estates. It’s a social class related problem which arguably has little impact on the lives of those who live in solid gated enclaves. It’s still the case that most JPs are recruited from the middle-class suburbs and market towns. Too often they issue what are seen as ‘soft’ sentences to the perpetrators of low-level crime. There’s a compelling case to ensure that the English criminal justice system is more diverse and reflective of local communities. In other words, we need more working class and BAME magistrates.
We know from social research that most ordinary folk want local authorities, the police and the criminal justice system to get muscular on the hard core of people who carry on behaving badly, and to send out a clear message that fly-tipping, littering public spaces such as parks, dog mess and harassing neighbours is unacceptable.
That’s why local councils have decided to increase the amount people were fined for dog fouling and littering from £75 to £100. The campaign group Keep Britain Tidy is calling for fines of up to £1,000. In the last six years, Newcastle Council have made 1,275 prosecutions and issued 1,350 penalty notices. These actions have resulted in 3,820 hours of community payback, 544 weeks in prison, and almost half a million in paid fines and costs.
But it also costs regional local authorities hundreds of thousands a year to tackle – money that could be spent on fixing potholes. Too often that’s something that people forget -littering, dog dirt and fly-tipping eventually costs councils taxpayers’ money because council street cleaners have to clear it up.
In the past we haven’t been tough enough – we’ve deluded ourselves it’s inevitable that this type of ASB goes on in some neighbourhoods. That’s a notion that regional policy makers need to challenge – wherever it takes place. The excuses need to stop, and answers need to be found.
Local authorities across the North want to work with, support and celebrate citizens who make a worthwhile and positive contribution to their neighbourhood. Newcastle Council’s Let’s Talk initiative found that eight of ten city residents back a robust approach and welcome new ideas on how to improve the quality of life for those who play by the rules. That’s why the Greening Wingrove and Arthurs’ Hill project (pioneered by the late community councillor Nigel Todd) has been a success capturing the hearts and minds of local people. Similar resident-led initiatives have appeared in the North West of the city like Kenton with a group of parents and youngsters called the Kenton and Montagu Superheros going put every other week on organised litter picks.
Elsewhere, the scourge of binge drinking among young people is being tackled. And in the city suburb of Gosforth, civic-minded volunteers have restored Central Park (in partnership with the charity Urban Green) as an area of beauty and recreation especially during the Covid -19 pandemic.
As criminologists have noted the causes of ASB and low-level crime are complex and multi-faceted, rooted in everything from family breakdown, lack of personal responsibility to relative deprivation.
The longer-term solutions demand far more investment in neighbourhood renewal such as increased community policing and street wardens – the ‘eyes and ears’ of any locality. But by working together at a local level, people and groups can make a fundamental difference to the quality of life.
We must also get tough on the deviant few and send out a robust message that ASB and incivility won’t be tolerated.