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The riots: local leaders are the answer

It's rather hard to attack people that are so obviously a part of your community.

New Statesman
A British riot policemen walks past a burning furniture store in Croydon. Photograph: Getty Images.

The riots were a game-changer. The sheer scale of the criminality tells a story in itself - 15,000 participants, 5,000 crimes and a cost of £0.5bn. Until now, crime has rarely impacted on most of us - if you live in the category of neighbourhood most affected by it, you suffer twice the rate of property crime and four times the personal crime than those in the next worst. Crime rates have remained relatively steady over the years, but distribution has become increasingly concentrated.

The social changes that lead to the events of August 2011 didn't happen overnight. They took years of neglect, of declining educational standards for the poor, of poverty, mental illness and drug addiction festering in depleted social housing stock, of bad parenting passed down from one generation to another.

Many of the comments below will say we need to be tougher, that we can police the problem away. And there's plenty to be said for getting the most damaging members of society out of circulation, and showing that law-breaking comes with consequences.

But even if you ignore the fact that reconviction rates within two years continue to hover around the two thirds mark, there's a bigger problem: it's what we've been trying to do for years. When New Labour said they were tough on crime, they meant it: they needed an independent commission to decide on sentences due to overcrowding and three new super-prisons housing 2,500 prisoners had to be built. When you consider that it costs nearly £40,000 a year to keep someone in prison, you have to ask: how much further can we afford to go?

Can we bang up the children of the 500,000 "forgotten families" cited in today's Communities and Victims Panel report the moment they step out of line? When writers like me talk about the importance of preventative work, we don't do so because we're hand-wringing lefties: we do it because shutting the door before the horse has bolted makes good economic sense.

Now the shroud has been peeled away, everyone's looking for answers. Today's report leads with materialism and poor school attainment. The headline factor from the Guardian's research was the poor relationship between communities and the police. No doubt commentators will again talk about parenting, unemployment and all sorts of other reasons over coming days.

All of these arguments carry weight, and they are all things which, little-by-little, we need to work on. But the fact that the riots were so widespread has obscured an important point. At heart, this is a local issue. When I researched street gangs, it wasn't hard to know on which estates to look. Riots and gangs are born of many of the same factors, and as it happens the location of the riots almost mirrored my book chapter-by-chapter.

Within these places, there are more criminals than average, but there are many more people who want to make their neighbourhoods better. Community empowerment and organisation are the answer to many of these problems. When the situation in August exploded, we cried out for the return of Boris and Dave, not for the leaders of our local council.

The market traders of Maida Hill held their market on the Tuesday of the riots - they were, in their words, willing to fight anyone who'd come steaming down the Harrow Road. The Sikhs of Southall who decided to defend their temple were untroubled. Perhaps the show of strength was off-putting; more likely, they were untroubled because it's rather hard to attack people and things that are so very obviously a part of your community.

Crime doesn't happen in a bubble. What we need to look at are ways of increasing - and it's a horrible, wishy-washy phrase - community empowerment: to take advantage of the dormant goodness that lies inside most of us. There were many who didn't know, or care, what their sons and brothers were up to during the riots. There were many more who did, but felt powerless.

The "big society" has quietly died a death. But there are plenty of examples of it around our cities and always have been - mostly in the voluntary sector, where local organisations fill in the gaps in state provision at short notice and with sporadic, unreliable funding. They need people to get involved and help out - people like you and me. The gnashing of teeth over the riots will continue for some time yet. No doubt it'll resolve itself into an old-fashioned political point-scoring match, fuel for a thousand twitterspats and occasional barbs in the House of Commons. And it'll be the greatest tragedy of all, because the answer to most of these problems is right under our noses.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, the Times, Private Eye, The National & TLS. He lives in London and tweets as @aljwhite. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture, republished this year.