The riots that took place in August 2011 shocked the nation. It could be argued that they heralded a new strain of civil unrest in the United Kingdom. However, with the Government blaming ‘criminality pure and simple’ and the lack of a public inquiry similar to the one undertaken by Lord Scarman in the 1980s, there was a significant void in the evidence needed to explain the August riots and to help guide the policy responses that are necessary. Many people translated their social perspectives to explain the causes of the riots: it was portrayed as a symptom of ‘Broken Britain’ or alternatively, as a manifestation of inequality. To seek evidence to provide more grounded responses is not to condone the riots.
The Guardian and London School of Economics Reading the Riots project sought to redress this evidence gap. As part of Reading the Riots, researchers spoke with over 270 rioters across England and found that hostility to the police, dislocation from society and inequality were major factors behind people of all ages taking to the streets, alongside the often cited consumerist urge to ‘get some free stuff.’
Despite these clear commonalities, there were discernible geographical disparities in the way that the riots developed, differences which are bound up in specific historical and social contexts. These particular local characteristics need to be recognised and put at the heart of a suitable response. The north of England in particular is suffering disproportionately from the ill-effects caused by the recession and the subsequent government responses. For instance, area based grants (ABG), which targeted investment to areas in need of regeneration and which laid great emphasis on tackling worklessness, have been ended. This has had significant impact in the North West, in which 21 of 39 local authority areas (including Manchester, Liverpool and Salford) were in receipt.
This is part of a wider context that can help explain the disparities between events. Furthermore, more local exploration of drivers suggests a clear difference between Manchester and Salford, although both involved elements of both aspects, the events in the two cities contrasted respectively between looting and anti-police action (when interviewing rioters, I was told that if people wanted expensive goods, then they would have been in Manchester, not Salford precinct).
Last year David Cameron declared that ‘fairness means giving people what they deserve, and what they deserve depends on how they behave’. Although the behaviour of the rioters is not to be condoned, the voice of all our northern communities, including those who rioted, deserves to be listened to. It is for this reason that as a Director of Salford’s Social Action & Research Foundation, we worked with the Guardian and LSE in early March to put on the Manchester and Salford Reading the Riots community conversations, which involved over 250 participants from across the community, including residents, charities, the local authority and the police.
There was real consensus, contrary to government’s response, that the riots were caused by complex factors, and as a result, we require complex solutions. The Social Action & Research Foundation believe that the best people to devise policy solutions is those people who live and work in communities, something confirmed through the Community Conversations. Solutions that were suggested and require more considered reflection include the need to tackle long-term unemployment and exclusion. This requires a critical re-imagining of developing sustainable local economies that work for local communities, rather than the other way around.
The continued focus on economic growth as the sole means for measuring success is not sufficient. We must see it as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. It is not only the need to ‘mend Broken Britain’ and reduce the deficit that we need to discuss, but rather, the need to create a dynamic society that brings together the political, economic and social contributions of all our citizens. In order to generate the responsibilities that government insists that were lacking amongst rioters, we need social support and mechanisms that are designed to create more opportunities and choices upon which people can make substantive decisions and then act responsibly on that basis. Responsibility is a two-way process.
We need to consider how we can use the skills, knowledge and expertise of our communities in co-producing public services for the twenty-first century welfare state. This is a radical approach to public services in a way that would builds upon the skills and capabilities of communities and encourages an equal and reciprocal relationship between all those involved in the delivery process. It is conceived as a means of transforming the traditional passive relationship between ‘users’ of public services and those people that serve them.
The riots provided a window into some major issues within our society. We are all undoubtedly living in challenging times, in which poverty in all its insidious guises is set to increase. The Social Action & Research Foundation envision a different society than the one we are currently offered that privileges the market above all else. We want one in which the economy is made to work for society. In order to achieve this, our shared public services must be co-produced alongside communities contributing their essential knowledge to create an effective and accountable welfare state, which promotes active equality at a local level, and in which the voice of those experiencing poverty is truly valued.
*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society