The riots, an assertion of power and our self-serving council

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.

The new symbol of Croydon? But two years on, do we yet understand what led to the riots?

The new symbol of Croydon? But two years on, do we yet understand what led to the riots?

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.

Croydon's former CEO Jon Rouse: went off to a meeting just hours before the riots began

Croydon’s former CEO Jon Rouse: went off to a meeting just hours before the riots began

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?

Steve Reed MP: has highlighted cuts to Croydon's police stations since 2011

Steve Reed MP: has highlighted cuts to Croydon’s police stations since 2011

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?

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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5 Responses to The riots, an assertion of power and our self-serving council

  1. I agree that two years is too long for something to be done.
    “The disaffected that rioted on that night are no less disaffected. Youth unemployment remains high.”. This cannot be accpeted as a reason for rioting.

    I am not young but I have been unemployed for 16 months and I don’t go and burn people’s shops do I? There is absolutely no excuse. This was done by criminals who wanted easy money and don’t want to work.

    It is easy for Steve Reed MP to say this “Senior politicians were quick to come and promise help in the immediate aftermath of the riots, but little has come through,” . What he doesn’t understand is his leader Ed Millibandwagon went to Lewisham after the riots not Croydon. He came to Croydon to canvass for Steve but didn’t bother to visit the shops on London Road.

    • Who suggested that there was any justification for what went on on the night of August 8, 2011?

      The disaffected that rioted on that night are no less disaffected. This is a fact. Disaffection was one of the conditions that led to the riots, and it exists in the same manner today.

      Youth unemployment remains high. This is a fact. High levels of youth unemployment was one of the conditions that led to the riots, and it exists in the same manner today.

      And when Steve Reed says that “Senior politicians”, meaning “Call Me Dave” Cameron and Boris Johnson, eagerly accompanied by the likes of Gavin Barwell and Steve “Three Jobs” O’Connell, “were quick to come and promise help in the immediate aftermath of the riots, but little has come through”, that, too, is fact.

  2. In the South Croydon Community Association we have worked hard to understand the root causes of the Riots. We have worked across the Borough and talked to other active groups/residents. We have found that Croydon has been organised such that many of the social problems and projects are concentrated in blocks. That there are vast tracts of “safe suburbia” which are relatively untouched by the bulk of the social problems in the Borough, these areas are like “another country” where people have a completely different lifestyle and life expectancy.

    Croydon has not only its own social problems, but many of the surrounding Boroughs’ problems housed here as it is an area of cheap housing. It is not one problem it is the concentration of problems:
    * a high concentration of schizophrenics housed in the Borough with drug and alcohol related problems;
    * a high quantity of poor quality private let accommodation, combined with a low level of public housing;
    * a high concentration of recent arrivals to the UK attracted in by the presence of the Home Office in the Borough;
    * low educational outcomes compared to other Southern outer London Boroughs; resulting in a high level of NEET’s;
    * lower wages and higher levels of poverty than surrounding Boroughs;
    * poor Arts provision compared to other Boroughs ( the year of the Riots saw a significant reduction in Arts activities targetted at the wider population and the young, such as the Mela).;
    * poor road planning and urban design giving a “Brutalist” feel to the town;
    * rundown commercial properties: major landowners had failed to invest in and develop their own premises from the Swan & Sugarloaf Pub to the Whitgift Centre to the area around West Croydon Station;
    * a culture of not keeping the streets clean throughout the whole of the Borough;
    * Key decisions being made without any proper community engagement, such as planning permission to build tower blocks to create high density residential accommodation; such as imposing excessive parking charges; and cutting much loved Arts facilities;
    * Major changes in the population profile without any strategies for real power sharing; too many key organisations are still only representative of the population profile from the 1960’s….

    We created an underclass who knew that they had no real share in the community. We have not stopped progessing along that trajectory – no-one seems to have thought ahead about what Central Croydon is going to be like with a much larger population all housed in high density flats; no-one seems to have a realistic plan to control sub-standard private let property, or help our alcoholic schizophrenics break the cycle of addiction..

  3. Good posting and as usual useful response by Charlotte. Mention is made above of the folding of the West Croydon Community Forum. Readers can see the 5 August statement at http://westcroydonforum.wordpress.com. The minutes of its meetings up to February can be read at http://www.cvalive.org.uk/ConnectingandInfluencing/Networking/WestCroydonCommunityForum.aspx.

  4. Jonathan Law says:

    Some lovely points made, and I’m sure there is some relevance, but whilst there are HUGE social issues that need attention in our borough, there is also way too much hand-wringing and bleeding hearts searching to find reasons that a large group of people set out on a criminal undertaking because they thought/knew that they would get away with it.

    Maybe it’s because nobody took the time to instil a moral compass in them – be it parents, teachers or whoever.
    Maybe it’s because our politicians and public figures set such a bad example of “take what you can/make a fast buck”, with their dishonest and self serving schemes, not worrying who suffers as a result.
    In a culture of sky high boardroom pay, golden handshakes and golden goodbyes when they fail miserably at the job they were appointed to – and go straight into another stupendously paid job.

    Anyway – back to my main point

    I haven’t made it my job to collate and document hard facts – so I will point out that “allegedly”:

    The riots were organised – and organised WAY in advance of the events that supposedly triggered the outburst .
    Those events in Tottenham were used as a lovely convenient smokescreen for mass criminality.
    There was apparently a list of who was to be hit and who was to be left alone – reports say of this list being found left behind in one of the burnt shops.
    I heard reports that some shopkeepers were told in advance that they would not be hit .
    There were streets lined with hire vans on the afternoon and evening of the “riot” – notably Oakfield Road in West Croydon.
    You don’t go hire white vans on the off-chance of needing one in case something got stolen.

    People travelled INTO Croydon from out of Borough all through the day – these were not just disaffected Croydon kids – these were crime tourists.
    All through the evening of the 8th August I watched busloads of teenagers were coming into Croydon rather than fleeing Croydon – teenagers mobilised each other ( we are talking about school kids – taking a night off from the TV and video games to come looting) travelling by bus into Croydon as it burned.
    I have friends who had to stop their kids from joining the party that night after receiving phone calls from teenage friends.
    Teenaged kids were calling up parents and dragging them (and the family car) out to come collect the big screen TV or whatever that the kids had liberated from whichever shop.
    Wonder how conflicted these parents felt as they loaded up stolen booty into the family estate car.

    ……and if and when they got caught they weren’t too worried knowing that they could pull the “socially disaffected card – “where’s my phone-call, I need a social worker, or a councillor whilst I palm off my criminality as “confused, socially frustrated anger at a world that doesn’t care”.
    Sitting there crying to those that will listen, and then smirking as soon as no one is looking because they know that they will get away with it.

    OK – there you go I said it, and I know that I’m not the only one to think it.

    It’s a bit like the Emperor’s New Clothes – too many people feel this way about it but dare not speak out about it for seeming out of step with the politically correct viewpoint on it.
    I mean -sure let’s sort out all the social issues and hold council/police/government accountable for their failings and shortcomings, but for goodness sake let’s have the balls to call things for what they are.

    For the record, my own politics are actually liberal/socialist, so I’m not spouting “Daily Mail inspired” retoric, but I’m shocked that so few people are able to stand up and call bullshit on some of the lame excuses given for criminality.

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