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Why austerity is to blame for the Birmingham prison riot

The funding cutbacks to the criminal justice system require an urgent re-think.

Levels of violence have risen within the English prison system over the past year. The most serious incident occurred last week in HMP Birmingham where inmates took control of four wings. This follows growing unrest over the fall in facilities to prisoners, including lack of hot water and an increasing number of hours spent locked up due to staff shortages. There are some suggestions in the media that an influx of psychoactive drugs to the prison system has led to prisoners behaving more aggressively than ever before. But there seems to be little evidence of that being the cause of this unrest.

It is true that it is easier today for prisoners to access particular types of drugs, especially legal highs, and become addicted but that says more about the state of the prisons than about individuals kept there. A report published in May carried out by HM Inspectorate of Prisons into HMP Bedford found that almost twice the number of prisoners said it was "easy" to get hold of drugs, compared to a previous inspection in February 2014. Peter Clarke, Chief Inspector of Prisons, wrote in the report: "The stark reality is that prisoners told us it was easier to get illegal drugs in the prison than it was to get clothes or sheets.

The truth is that the prison system is not working. The real problem remains the large number of people we put to prison every year, many for non-violent offences, including women. Compared to other European countries we have a much bigger population of prisoners per capita, and among western developed nations we are only second to the US. Nordic countries, Germany or the Netherlands have half the number of prisoners per capita and European judges are trained and educated to think of non-incarceration punishments.

We have more people in prison per capita than even China or Nigeria. Prison population numbers have doubled in the last 20 years as sentences have lengthened and the types of of “anti-social” acts classified as offences increased. And yet during that period better crime prevention and a wealthier, ageing nation led to a sharp reduction in crimes overall. But the politicians and judges seemed unable to resist the pressure of tabloid journalism to increase prison numbers.

There are now more men in prison than in the British Army. What we also know is that prison is not a deterrent for crime. The re-offending rate has remained stubbornly high costing the economy between £9 billion and £13 billion a year. Alternatives such as community service or proper treatment of alcohol and drug addiction are better options. Sending vulnerable people with trivial offences to prison or sending abused women to prison and separating them from their children is costing society dear. Children are taken into care which is often even more expensive than the cost of their mothers being in prison. What is more, children who have been in care at some point in their lives are four times as likely to commit an anti-social act including crimes that end up with a custodial sentence. When people emerge from prison they are unlikely to find proper jobs and easily start to re-offend to get a little money to feed themselves, pay rent or buy drugs.

This is all a great drain on the public purse. The system has become too expensive to fund or allow it to focus on “rehabilitating” offenders so they can play a proper role in society again. All the academic and practical evidence suggest that the best way to reduce crime is through education and employment. The funding cutbacks to the criminal justice system require a re-think. That began during Michael Gove's period as Justice Secretary where he pursued, up to a point I am sure out of financial necessity, a more liberal agenda aimed at reducing prison numbers. This has stalled under his successor, Liz Truss. The cutbacks in prison officers has led to people missing training and being locked up for 23 hours a day.

The private prisons themselves are under even greater pressure with inexperienced younger personnel. Conditions in prisons are deteriorating and violence is spreading. Denying prisoners who are locked away for 23 hours a day the possibility of a warm shower is borderline inhumane. But there is little press reporting of the shocking conditions in prison and the once-famous parliamentary lobby for prison reform has fizzled out.

The answer is not building more prisons, although many of the old prisons need to be demolished or replaced. The sentencing process needs to be rethought, more community centres and women centres are needed to replace prisons. The issues that lead people to crime, such as poor education, unemployment, domestic abuse, alcohol dependency and drug abuse should be dealt at source. That would reduce crime generally and re offending in particular.

The truth is that the previous government's "rehabilitation revolution" is failing. While the issues of too many people in prison at a time of austerity are not re-thought properly, riots will continue as will the shocking number of prison suicides and more and more elderly, infirm octogenarians waiting to die as British prisons become death rows for zimmer frame prisoners.


Vicky Pryce's book Prisonomics was published by Biteback in 2015.


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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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