It is two years to the day since the riots hit Croydon, and not only do many of those dispossessed and rendered homeless on that night of infamy remain waiting for government help and compensation, but we still do not properly understand what caused the widespread violence, looting and destruction.
That’s not just the view of Inside Croydon. That’s the view of Danny Finkelstein, the chum of Gideon Osborne, a former Conservative party speechwriter and adviser, now the leader writer in The Times newspaper, and one of the newest Tory peers in the House of Lords.
It is easy to state that Finkelstein is unusual among the Establishment in having a conscience. As an accomplished journalist, he also questions power, and in a piece in his newspaper yesterday, he did just that about the causes of the riots. “Nothing can excuse what happened,” he wrote, “… and revulsion will remain the correct emotion. But comprehension is vital, too, and I don’t think we have reached that.”
Finkelstein highlighted that there has been two riots in Tottenham in a generation. You might suggest that, south of the Thames, there has been similar twin breakdown in public order, in Brixton in the 1980s, and then in Croydon and Clapham in 2011. “We can’t just pass it by,” Finkelstein says.
In Croydon, our council pretty much did that.
Following a weekend of rioting elsewhere in the capital, and some violent disturbances in parts of our borough on the Sunday night, Monday, August 8, 2011 was a day of shame for our council: no senior elected figures from Croydon Council managed to turn up for a vital police briefing meeting on the Monday morning. And despite intelligence suggesting that there was trouble brewing, the then chief executive of the council, Jon Rouse, left his office in mid-afternoon for a routine meeting, when he might have been better employed helping to co-ordinate the police and council’s response.
So was it any surprise that in the riots aftermath, our council managed to hold an ineffectual inquiry that, perhaps conveniently, glided over the events of 8/8, even failing to take evidence from some of the key witnesses?
That included some of the police who had been left under-staffed and ill-equipped to cope with the situation that confronted them. The judge who chaired the enquiry, William Barnett, a mate of senior councillor Dudley Mead and local MP Gavin Barwell through their Whitgift Foundation links, did very nicely out of the riots, thank you very much. Barnett was paid £35,000 for a few weeks’ part-time work, and presumably without any of the delays encountered by riot victims left, helplessly, waiting for their compensation.
“We seem to know remarkably little about what really happened,” Finkelstein wrote yesterday. “We have moved on, smoothly, leaving it all behind.” Certainly, that was the impression, or lack of an impression created by the futile Barnett inquiry in Croydon. There must be a carpet somewhere in the Town Hall with a great deal that has been swept under it.
Reading his piece in The Times, you may think Finkelstein might have run a better inquiry for Croydon. Not that John Major’s former policy adviser in No10 claims to have the answers, even after going through the various pieces of academic research into the rioting that have been published in the last 24 months.
“In Downing Street during the riots, as cities burned, the Prime Minister,” Finkelstein said, in this case meaning David Cameron, “described the looting and the violence and the arson as ‘criminality, pure and simple’. This may have been the right message at that moment but, on reflection, I think it was only half right. I think it was criminality pure, but not simple.”
Finkelstein described the events of that August weekend two years ago as “one of the most frightening and depressing social disasters of my lifetime”.
He refers to the book, Reading the Riots, which is based on research conducted by the London School of Economics and The Guardian, which he said puts forward a compelling case: “A large part of the motivation of the disturbances was an act of revenge against the police, and to a lesser but still important extent against the middle class, against those people who had the material possessions that the rioters wanted.”
It was, the LSE researchers say, and Finkelstein agrees, an “assertion of power”: “Rioters seized upon a moment when police were weak to show their own strength… This was one of the reasons the riots started everywhere at once – precisely because the police couldn’t be everywhere at once.”
And so what has changed, here in Croydon, in the past two years?
The disaffected that rioted on that night are no less disaffected. Youth unemployment remains high. They are now joined, as far as disaffection goes, by those who lost their homes or businesses on 8/8. “Senior politicians were quick to come and promise help in the immediate aftermath of the riots, but little has come through,” said Steve Reed, now the MP for Croydon North. “No wonder people here feel forgotten and abandoned.”
Matters may actually be worse in Croydon in August 2013 than they were in 2011, not least because of the housing crisis in the borough, which even council CEO Rouse claimed, before his abrupt departure earlier this year, was “exacerbated” by this government’s Bedroom Tax being imposed on council tenants in the borough.
Among the promises so easily made in 2011 has been a riots recovery fund from the Mayor of London. But to a large extent in Croydon that is still to be paid out, except for a few minor schemes in parts of the borough that were not among the worst-hit by the riots, but which happen to be in wards where there are councillors who are members of the Conservative cabinet that controls our self-serving council.
A community association in West Croydon, established to deal with the breakdown in communities in the area, has meanwhile been taken over by the council-backed Croydon Voluntary Action group, and in the past month has been closed down, without real explanation. Is the work finished? What has happened to its funding? The West Croydon Community Forum appears to be another inconvenient reminder of the riots, to be swept under the carpet, best forgotten.
And then there’s the closure of police stations – Croydon is among the worst-hit of all London boroughs. There are claims and counter-claims about whether this will release funds for more officers on the streets.
If, as Finkelstein suggests, we don’t, even now, properly understand what caused the riots, but there is some evidence that it was all about the “assertion of power”, then this is surely yet another example of how ill-served the people of Croydon have been by elected officials at the Town Hall and City Hall?
- For Inside Croydon’s archive of coverage of the riots, from August 8 2011 through until this week, click here
- Inside Croydon: Croydon’s only independent news source, based in the heart of the borough – 262,183 page views (Jan-Jun 2013)
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- Riesco objections: Croydon Council’s squandering our heritage (insidecroydon.com)
- A Shrine to the Croydon Riots (nody-orc.com)
- How London is rebuilding after the 2011 riots (metro.co.uk)
- ‘Nothing’ done for riot victims (bbc.co.uk)