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10 April 2024

How Britain legalised crime

The UK’s neglected towns have become a haven for criminals while residents try to retain local pride – and police are all but powerless.

By Anoosh Chakelian

“Pig Alley” is a corridor of crime running along the backs of houses and garages in the Kent town of Chatham, on the River Medway. It doesn’t have an official name – local police call it Newnham Street, the fire service Henry Street, but everyone knows it as Pig or Piggy Alley. Historically, two abattoirs operated at either end, and residents would spot the occasional escapee piglet. The name has stuck today because police (“pigs”) often turn up here.

From fly-tipping to county lines – networks of city-based dealers distributing drugs to smaller towns, often through children and teens – the scruffy service road has become what one local described to me as “the poster child of antisocial behaviour”. Three years ago, it featured in a BBC documentary about Britain’s drug-running problem.

When I visited on a recent Friday afternoon, the mutter of dog walkers and buzz of drilling punctuated the silence as I walked past a discarded ironing board, strewn binbags and empty Tyskie beer cans. I was on a tour of the neighbourhood around Luton Road, forever described in the Medway press as “notorious” for violence and crime: a reputation residents told me was part exaggerated, part “self-fulfilling prophecy”. One who lived a street on from Luton Road emphasised that her freshly-painted housefront hadn’t yet been vandalised – before sighing that she was, however, having trouble with weed-smoking neighbours.

Burglary, dealing, shoplifting, littering, dog mess, vandalism, dangerous driving… highly visible, lower-level criminality is a day-to-day experience for many, with more than a third of Britons experiencing antisocial behaviour in 2022-23. While antisocial behaviour has fallen 8 per cent since its post-pandemic spike, the overall number of unsolved criminal offences rose 9 per cent from 2022 to 2023. Police failed to solve a single burglary in half of all neighbourhoods in England and Wales over the past three years, according to data analysis by the Telegraph. The shoplifting rate has hit its highest level in more than two decades – and a review last December showed that police don’t turn up to 40 per cent of violent retail thefts.

As councils collapse and police forces fail to solve 90 per cent of reported crimes, a feeling is building among the public that the authorities have “given up”. I even heard this from a police constable, who admitted there were parts of her north-west London patch she wouldn’t go to at night off-duty for fear of being mugged. She knew it was unlikely officers would be on patrol nearby, “and we can’t do much anyway”.

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While the government hit its recruitment target for 20,000 new police officers a year ago, this only adds up to 3,500 more than were serving in 2010. Staff cuts in the intervening years stripped forces of experienced recruits, and officers today fill gaps in other public services. The constable I spoke to said she regularly spends entire shifts waiting with a victim or suspect in A&E.

High streets and town centres that voters were promised would benefit from levelling up – a generally abandoned Conservative policy of reducing regional inequality – have been neglected. Over the past 15 years, the majority of councils have dimmed or cut streetlights to save money. The broken windows theory, popularised by the New York City police commissioner William Bratton in the Nineties, suggests that fixing little problems such as smashed windows stops criminals being emboldened to commit worse offences. But in the UK, as one Metropolitan Police detective put it to me, this theory “has been forgotten, which will lead to more serious criminality”.

With the state receding and trust in police falling, the public is left clinging to pride in place. I saw this in Chatham’s Luton locale, where members of the Arches Local community group had planted acer trees and purple tulips along the verges, commissioned street art and even hired farmyard animals to create a “pop-up farm” in a once-rough park to shift perceptions.

In vibrant contrast to the pocked road surfaces and littered gutters, huge murals by professional artists shone out from the backs of terraces and shops lining Pig Alley. A giant cabbage like a crash-landed meteor – surrounded by men in hazmat suits – was a nod to local agricultural heritage (Luton used to be nicknamed “Cabbage Island”). A series of cartoonish cyclops aliens with giant eyes, inspired by a Danish project that found such images had a deterrent effect as potential criminals felt “watched”, gazed back at me in bright hues.

Photo: Local Trust
Photo: Local Trust

“We’re not so much making things better yet, but we’re stopping things getting worse,” said Jackson Fraser-Hague, a 28-year-old Arches Local worker who grew up and went to school on Luton Road, trudging around with a determined civic pride. “Particularly in a place like this, whose identity has been shot to pieces since the dockyard closed. How do we keep people feeling safe and proud of where they live?”

The group’s National Lottery funding, granted in 2012, is ending next year, but the people will carry on. They clear broken glass and laughing gas canisters for outdoor shows in an amphitheatre seating area in Luton Millennium Green – a park of incomplete swing sets and catatonic shopping trolleys so troubled in the past that even police had been too afraid to patrol it.

“The council is under-resourced, and you should be careful what you wish for trying to get police involved,” Fraser-Hague shrugged. “If they just fit taller fences and more cameras, it doesn’t change anything. You need the place nurtured, or it just leads to lawlessness.”

[See also: Universities are in crisis]

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This article appears in the 10 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Trauma Ward