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  1. Election 2024
6 August 2021

A decade after the London riots, has anything actually changed?

Key figures from the time of the 2011 summer riots indicate that few lessons have been learned over the decade since, while many factors have worsened.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Ten years ago, as riots swept across London, Pauline Pearce became the voice of a nation.

The then 45-year-old grandmother, jazz singer and community radio presenter was filmed by a Telegraph journalist confronting and shaking her walking stick at looting youths on Clarence Road, Lower Clapton in the east London borough of Hackney.

“She’s working hard to make her business work and then you lot want to go and burn it up, for what?” she yells in the clip. “If we’re fighting for a cause, let’s fight for a f***ing cause – you lot piss me the f*** off, I’m ashamed to be a Hackney person, ‘cause we’re not all gathering together and fighting for a cause, we’re running down Foot Locker and thiefing shoes.”

Christened the “Heroine of Hackney”, Pearce – already an anti-youth violence campaigner whose own son had been stabbed in the past – captured the attention of a country facing riots, which swept through the capital to other cities in the summer of 2011.

On 4 August 2011, police officers had shot and killed a 29-year-old mixed-race man called Mark Duggan in Tottenham, north London. This incident and the ensuing disrespect of his family – for which the police later had to apologise – sparked the biggest wave of civil unrest in Britain for a generation.

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Still a Hackney resident, Pearce, now 55, remembers the “madness, mayhem and chaos” of that night she confronted the rioters, and seeing “the state of the streets”. Today, she feels there has been “no progress” in improving the lives of young people in Hackney. “In the ten years that have happened since, they still haven’t got it right,” she says of the government.


The most comprehensive body of research into the events of that summer, Reading the Riots, by the Guardian and LSE, gathered testimonies from 270 people involved in the disorder across London and in Birmingham, Manchester, Salford, Nottingham and Liverpool.

This research found that there was widespread anger and frustration at people’s everyday treatment at the hands of the police, that the rioters were generally poorer than the national average, and identified other grievances, such as the rise of tuition fees, closure of youth services and scrapping of the education maintenance allowance in 2010.

“Deprivation was a key predictor, stop and search was a key predictor, negative attitudes to the police were a key predictor of participating in the riots,” says John Drury, professor of social psychology at the University of Sussex, who was behind the 2019 report, Beyond Contagion, into how the riots spread and why they took place where they did. “It was the same sense of having to teach police a lesson because of racist policing common to those key locations, it was the same anger, the same sense of injustice in those locations.”

Lamenting the racism that persists in British society, from the Windrush scandal to the recent abuse of England footballers, Pearce warns that young black people are still being sidelined. “British politics has got a far, far way to go when it comes to equality, especially with our black people,” she says, sounding tearful over the phone from her home in Hackney.

“I’m so disappointed in my country. And you can’t say I’m not British – I was damn well born here, my skin colour may be different, but I can be as posh as the poshest Englishman! I was born in Hertfordshire, don’t you know? Where hurricanes hardly ever happen!”

She adds: “With some perseverance, new role models and passionate people, I think the government and those in councils, they need to start listening to their local community workers, local youth supporters, they have to spend time and money in those sectors to make a difference.”


The 2011 riots were not “classic race riots”, says David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham and shadow justice secretary. “They involved vastly different communities – black and white, north and south, middle-class people, because the policing was poor, and we’ve seen 20,000 police officers go since 2010,” he says. “It all comes back to the resources we’re putting into our communities.”

A prominent voice in the response to the riots, Lammy says the “data is going in the wrong direction” ten years on from the disorder: “School spending per pupil has fallen, youth clubs have closed as 70 per cent of youth funding has been cut, and it’s unbelievable that stop and search has got worse”.

Stop and search, which Lammy describes as “at the centre of the debate and the discussion” during the riots, saw black people 6.7 times more likely to be targeted by police than white people in 2010-11 – a figure that rose to 8.9 times more likely in 2019-20, despite reforms to stop and search by then-home secretary Theresa May in 2014.

“And now the government is saying section 60 searches are going to widen,” which could make the situation worse, warns Lammy, referring to the government’s recent plan to relax restrictions on the use of searches without grounds for suspicion.


Unlike previous riots in the UK, no public inquiry followed the events of 2011. Instead, the government set up a Riots, Communities and Victims Panel in August 2011 to report on what had happened.

Each of the then main party leaders, David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, nominated a panellist, and Darra Singh – chief executive of Jobcentre Plus at the time of the riots and formerly second-in-command at the Department for Work and Pensions – was nominated by all three as the independent chair of the panel.

In 2012, it published a report called After the Riots, which made 63 recommendations to the government. It identified that the 500,000 “forgotten families” that “bump along at the bottom of society” were the type of deprived household to which many of the rioters belonged, and called for greater support for them. A year after publication, just 11 of its recommendations had been implemented and the majority rejected, according to Labour.

“The reality of governmental public policy in response to the riots was nothing. The government did as close to nothing as it was possible to do in response to the riots,” says Tim Newburn, professor of criminology and social policy at LSE who was the academic lead on Reading the Riots.

“I personally find that extraordinarily shocking. This was the largest civil disorder in the postwar period.”

Indeed, a new report by the Labour Party, After the Riots – Ten Years On, finds the number of “forgotten families” has likely doubled over the past decade. It also suggests cuts to youth services and in-work poverty have worsened since the riots, while reoffending rates have stayed similar, and public confidence in the police has dipped.

“The government chose to ignore the lessons of the riots, so the risks we face today seem higher than ever,” says Labour’s communities secretary Steve Reed, who worked on the report.

After the Riots chair Darra Singh, a local government consultant and partner at Ernst and Young, believes “there’s been a wasted decade” since he worked on the report.

“Reflecting back on the time, I would’ve wanted more action on the recommendations. We’ve wasted that opportunity, I think,” he says.

Recalling that the government “agreed with what we said” (albeit sounding “tougher on people who committed social disorder”), Singh says there was a recognition at the time that “while living in poverty, in a deprived area, lacking access to lots of services and having a poor education doesn’t automatically make you a rioter, it doesn’t help”.

Yet there has been little progress in tackling the “underlying conditions” of the riots, which were discovered by the panel via visits to offenders and victims across the country; public meetings; data; and survey results: “Particularly around aspiration, educational attainment, reoffending, and the relationship and trust between some members of the public and the police, which had been poor.”

For Pearce, education is key. She says schools should do more to address racial tensions among young people, and teach more black history. “When I was at school, I didn’t know about all this slavery. I was taught about Queen Elizabeth and Henry VIII, I was great on the Tudors! But none of it was black, it didn’t teach me about myself. They need that education.”

Emeka Egbuonu, a senior youth worker in Hackney at the time of the riots, also says education is central to preventing youth violence and criminality in the long term.

Now a college lecturer, he says “ultimately it’s about making sure they stay in education and take opportunities presented to them”.

For example, he remembers speaking to the group of 30 young people he was in charge of at his youth club following the riots, to find out why they had not participated. “I remember one man in particular who would 100 per cent have been involved, but we managed to get him a job at Marks and Spencer a few weeks before, and during this debrief he said he had something to lose this time – and that was why he didn’t get involved.”

Egbuonu says “not enough has been done to address the situation of exclusion” from education. Exclusions in English schools are rising, having reached a 13-year high in 2018-19. “How can we avoid what’s happening now for the younger generation?”

The After the Riots report also identified the importance of “character” and “personal resilience” in young people, and recommended that schools should take on a formal role building character in its pupils. Ofsted did announce that it would be monitoring how schools develop pupils’ character in its new inspection framework announced in 2019.

“This is even more important now in terms of during and after the pandemic,” says Singh. “How we give young people time and support to develop that personal resilience, to be able to cope with life and events, is so important.”


Falling heavily on local authorities, cuts imposed by Cameron’s austerity agenda in 2010 have taken their toll on services that After the Riots found were key.

“I work with the public sector, clearly resources were reduced in the austerity period and budgets for local government are smaller now than they were ten years ago – this has squeezed the ability of councils to deliver discretionary services, like working with young people,” Singh says.

He argues that the emphasis of his report on “prevention and early years” has also been missed, as the number of Sure Start and children’s centres across the country has fallen over the past few years.

Youth offending team funding has halved. Citing recent YMCA data analysis, which finds the national budget for youth services fell by 73 per cent between 2010-11 and 2019-20, Singh says: “We found youth service provision was fundamental and well-regarded but actually quite sparse – and that situation has deteriorated.”

Newburn remembers many of the rioters who spoke to Reading the Riots felt a sense not only that their lives and areas were getting worse but that the government was “targeting their communities” and “deliberately worsening their lives” with their policies. “Their view, in a broad sense, was that they occupied a place in the world where they were relatively invisible.”

“Those communities affected by the riots, given ten years of austerity, probably exhibit higher levels of poverty, and in circumstances of greater social inequality, than existed in 2011,” he adds.


So does this all mean the riots will repeat themselves?

Lammy says it’s “self-evident” that the conditions are there for another wave, “if you don’t fix the roof while the sun’s shining”.

“The underlying issues remain, and it could take a perceived act of profound unfairness” to spark further disorder, he warns, citing the case of Duggan in 2011 and the death of Cynthia Jarrett during a police search at her home, which was one trigger for the 1985 Broadwater Farm riot in Tottenham.

“Then the mayhem of a riot can go anywhere,” Lammy adds.

Warning against seeing contextual factors as “causes” of riots, Newburn says it is difficult to imagine a “government ‘strategy’ around crime that could be better designed to produce civil disorder”, regarding the latest announcement to widen police stop and search powers.

“If what one’s seeking to do is to heighten conflict and frustration and sense of grievance and worsen police-community relations, then the kind of things that were announced are a pretty good start in doing that.”


The impact of Covid-19 – the virus itself and the fallout of restrictions – has disproportionately affected deprived communities. Many speaking to the New Statesman about the riots suggest these conditions mirror or amplify some of the socio-economic issues identified a decade ago.

“Ultimately, what the riots of 2011 demonstrated, and highlighted, was the social inequality that exists within the UK, and I believe the same thing is happening now with Covid-19,” says criminologist Craig Pinkney, a youth centre manager in Birmingham at the time of the riots.

“We’re dealing with a decade of things that weren’t put in place since the riots in 2011, and now we’re now dealing with the same issues with Covid-19.”

Over the past 18 months, he has noticed younger people carrying knives, county lines drug-running by organised crime groups during lockdown, and poorer mental health and missed school having a big impact on children.

“What we’re going to start seeing now is a summer holiday of absolute madness,” he warns. “I predict that’s most likely going to happen.”

Singh believes the tenth anniversary is an “opportunity” for the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to ensure his Autumn Statement prioritises help for the “most vulnerable who have been affected by the pandemic”, with a focus on “supporting young people who can’t get support” from family or friendship structures.

“The virus has attacked the weakest and the poorest – I think it’s a lesson for us, and I want governments or leaders thinking about how we support all young people coming out of the pandemic,” he adds. “Particularly those furthest away from the labour market, who haven’t got the levels of education attainment we would want.” 

At present, however, the furlough scheme is set to be entirely phased out by the end of September, and the £20 Universal Credit uplift is also expected to be cut.

Back in Hackney, Pauline Pearce has had enough of a decade of talk without action. “I’ve hinted about it for the past ten years and beyond, now I actually want to see things happening – this is our time, and if there’s a time to change, and if there’s a time for England to really pull itself up, it’s now.”

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