The riots of August 2011, which began in Tottenham and spread across London and the UK, were “arguably the worst bout of civil unrest in a generation,” according to the LSE/Guardian study ‘Reading the Riots’.
After significant Mayoral investment into the hardest-hit areas and a flurry of commentary, research and policy proposals, there is a sense that the capital has moved on. But questions remain around what London’s leaders learned; whether they – and we as a broader community – have made our boroughs stronger, safer and more just, or whether we’ve just been lucky there’s been no recurrence. These questions were the focus of the second in our 3-2-1: Living Legacies series, ‘After the flames and the fury: 2 years on from the Riots’.
Event chair Brendon Walsh, LB Hounslow’s Director of Regeneration, Economic Development and Environment, set the stage with a visceral reminder of the unrest, a YouTube clip of one confrontation between rioters and police on a hard-hit street in his former borough, Ealing [warning: language not suitable for work].
Keynote for the evening was Rt Honourable David Lammy, MP for Tottenham and author of ‘Out of the Ashes: Britain after the Riots’. He argued that while “all riots begin with a spark” – in this case, the police shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham – it was existing issues including worklessness and discrimination that elevated the tension into rioting.
Nearly two years after the riots, affected communities still face many of the same challenges; some are even worse, given impending welfare reform and the recent economic climate. They also still struggle with stereotype: as Lammy pointed out, the vast majority of residents in hard-hit areas did not participate in the riots; youth have particularly been unjustly isolated as culprits, given that adults perpetrated a significant amount of the rioting, looting and arson.
To Lammy, “the veneer of London hanging out together [is] unravelling,” so part of the solution must be to create public space that strengthens social fabric, with mixed communities and appropriate homes. There’s also a critical need to act on youth unemployment, especially at this critical point as welfare reform begins to bite.
David Lammy was joined by three responders who offered their expertise on learning from the riots:
- Suzanne Hyde, a community researcher and writer on the LSE/Guardian report Reading the Riots, summarised findings from her first-person interviews. These included rioters citing injustice and pleasure narratives as reasons for rioting – 24% said that their involvement in the Riots was mainly related to anti-policing activities, while 40% indicated looting-, and resource-strapped police saying they too felt misrepresented in the media.
- Matthew Sims, Chief Executive of Croydon Business Improvement District, described the optimism of community clean-up efforts, and talked about the sea-change in his town centre as it prepares for new development, thanks in part to the Mayor’s Regeneration Fund. “All change Croydon”, the BID’s new slogan, aims to capture the community’s aspirations.
- Fitzroy Andrew, Chief Executive of Haringey Association of Voluntary and Community Organisations, called for an expanded definition of redevelopment, especially post-riots, saying “regeneration is about people, and at the most local level.” He also highlighted the potential of community organisations to reach and empower “easy-to-miss” social groups, and said we must massively ramp up the quality and quantity of volunteering.
So, two years on, have we understood and addressed the causes of the riots? Broadly, the speakers shared two sentiments. First, recovering from these riots is about far more than the built environment; it is about delivering a comprehensive regeneration programme that supports social cohesion and opens up economic opportunities. The Mayor’s Regeneration Fund, put in place to support sustainable economic growth in the worst affected areas, may help to make some progress on this front.
Will this happen at a large enough scale, in a short enough period of time? Unfortunately, the panellists’ second shared perspective was that, in the absence of significant programmes to address underlying socio-economic issues, further unrest is inevitable. This puts forward an important challenge to practitioners to deliver communities that embody integration and opportunity.