Lambeth was already gearing up to hand power to the community to tackle gang culture. In the wake of the riots, it is moving even faster.
Violent youth gangs played a significant role in the looting and disorder in August. Even David Cameron has finally woken up to the need to tackle the scourge of youth gangs, though his cuts targeted on poorer urban areas will hinder this. The government slashed funding for youth offending teams by 23 per cent earlier this year, bringing to an end numerous projects tackling gangs, and one of Boris Johnson’s early acts as mayor of London was to cut by 90 per cent the anti-gang pathways project that directly confronted gang members. You reap what you sow.
In Lambeth we are taking a radical new approach to tackling gang violence based on the insight that the worst-affected communities are central to any lasting solution. We aim to be the first council to put the community in charge of tackling violent youth crime instead of subjecting them to top-down strategies whose only success is in grabbing quick headlines.
An extraordinary meeting of community leaders held just days before looters ransacked Brixton heard the community tell the council ‘we are ready to lead’. Participants heard harrowing stories of the dangers facing young people who are targeted by violent youth gangs. Rosemarie Mallett from Brixton-based Word Against Weapons talked about how girls as young as nine are sexualised by older gang members who force them to stand in sexual poses and threaten them with violence, and even rape, if they refuse to comply. Many young people from poorer communities join gangs because they are threatened with violent assault if they do not. Once engaged they are expected to show their loyalty by getting involved in escalating levels of criminality, from small-scale theft and drug dealing to serious violence which may involve guns.
In response to the community’s demands, we plan a radical transfer of power and resources from the council to the community. This will be a significant early example of Lambeth’s cooperative council in action.
Youth centres and council funding will be moved into a community trust led by figures from the worst-affected neighbourhoods. The trust will pool its resources with whatever is already available in the community, including voluntary sector schemes and community-led initiatives. Each neighbourhood or estate will then be offered professional support to analyse their own specific needs and choose what services they want, including better parenting support, help for dysfunctional families, youth activities, employment initiatives, or peer mentoring schemes. People in each neighbourhood will choose the services they need, which organisation will provide them, and how they should be run, all within the budget that the community trust makes available to them.
This model of community empowerment will give people the chance to take back control over what happens to their young people. Their insights, as parents, neighbours or young people, will shape the kind of support available to their community. Instead of being told by professionals what will happen to them, the professionals will be put under the control of the community. After years of top-down services and unsuccessful, imposed interventions that have left them feeling powerless, the community will get the chance to lead, providing us with a real chance of getting vulnerable young people out of gangs and giving them back their future.
Steve Reed is leader of Lambeth council
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