A tale of two legacies – rioters and Olympians

We need to invest in the future of this marginalised generation.

Each morning on the start of my commute to work , I pass the burnt out shell of buildings that were torched in last summer’s riots in Peckham. A year on, nothing has been done to fill the gap left behind and local residents have become used to the sorry sight of these boarded up shops on our high street. This is in stark contrast to the experience at the other end of my journey to Barnardo’s headquarters near Stratford, where famously billions of pounds of investment have transformed the area into a glittering Olympic Park. 

The anniversary of the riots gives us cause to question what difference a year has made, especially to young people growing in communities like ours across the country today. Of course, sport and the bad weather has dominated news coverage this summer, a marked difference from last August when it was all about whether young people were to blame for widespread rioting. Barnardo’s emphasised at the time that the vast majority of children in the UK are well behaved and credit to themselves and their families.  We now know that only around a fifth of those arrested for participating in the riots were aged 10 to 17. 

Ministry of Justice figures subsequently revealed that many of those children who appeared in court for their involvement were from impoverished backgrounds. Nationally, 64% of juveniles appearing before the courts lived in one of 20% most deprived areas in the UK, and in London 40% were in receipt of free school meals compared to 26% of all London pupils in secondary schools. A report by the Cabinet Office found that feeling like a "lost cause" within their communities was also a factor for young people who rioted.  A further report by the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel talked about “500,000” forgotten families in the England and argued that a lack of support and opportunity for young people contributed to the outbreak of riots. 

With such strong indications that poverty and social exclusion loomed large in the backgrounds of those who rioted, one would have expected that efforts would have been focused in turning around their life chances. Indeed, the rhetoric from government around this has been strong.  The Prime Minister pledged to turn around the 120,000 most troubled families by 2015 and the Deputy Prime Minister’s £1bn youth contract aims to provide subsidised work and training placements for young people. This is encouraging.  However, the continued recession and austerity measures mean the reality is that this a tough time to be a young person. 

Deprivation remains a perennial problem, with a shocking 3.8 million children currently growing up in poverty in the UK.  And it’s not just workless households that are affected - sixty per cent of children living below the breadline live in households where at least one parent goes to work. Unintended consequences of reforms to the benefits system, such as introducing charges to child maintenance payments and changes to the Working Tax credit risk penalising the poorest, hard working families at a time when they are least equipped to handle it.  No decent society should allow children to go without to the extent that it affects their future life chances.

Education has the power to transform lives, so it was disastrous news when recent Department for Education statistics showed that for the first time in a decade the proportion of 16-year-olds in full-time education has dropped. Barnardo’s research has found that since the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance some of the most disadvantaged students were being forced to skip meals just to afford the bus to college. With the number of young people unemployed at its highest for twenty years, we need fast action to prevent even more young people from becoming an unemployment statistic.  That means investing more money so that students from the poorest backgrounds can actually afford to stay on in education and training, and taking seriously the provision and delivery of high quality, tailored support to help the most vulnerable who are furthest from the labour market.

All of which made David Cameron’s outrageous proposals earlier this summer to remove housing benefit from the under 25s particularly shocking.  This would risk leaving many vulnerable young people stranded and discounted the fact that their personal circumstances often mean that they cannot turn to their families for help. It is easy to slip back into the same tired anti-youth rhetoric as we heard last summer.  But we need to mind the message that we are sending to young people by failing to support them out of poverty, or failing to regenerate their communities after the events of last summer. 

Rather than taking the easy option and blaming young people we need persistent and concerted action by government, employers and the voluntary sector.  It means investing in the future of this marginalised generation to raise them up and create a legacy of which we can all be proud.

man looks at notes posted on a 'Peace Wall' on a boarded up window of a discount store in Peckham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Zoe Abrams is a Deputy Director at Barnardo’s.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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