Hackney's riots took place two days after the Tottenham riots, which were brought about by the shooting of Mark Duggan. During the riots, local MP Diane Abbot appeared to expect the riots when speaking on BBC, by saying it was ‘inevitable’ they would spread to Hackney. Why? What is it about Hackney that makes such expectations ‘inevitable’, and what parallels can be made with other poor and marginalised areas in the UK?
This article, the first in a series examining the reasons for the riots, looks at the political, economic and social background of Hackney to consider the root causes of anger spilling out on to the streets.
1960’s & 70’s - Hackney faced local problems with housing but like many other local authorities in the 1960s and early 1970s, was forced to borrow money from central government to finance housing projects. Around thirty such blocks were built in Hackney but loss of local industry and lack of investment in their upkeep meant many blocks became uninhabitable, and were knocked down or placed in line for demolition. This left Hackney in debt, with fewer rent streams to service that debt. Beset with fraud, and a debt scenario similar to the third world, the interest on the debt grew larger than the money available for repayment and it was left to the citizens to pay.
1990’s - In 1995, Hackney faced £30 million worth of cuts in public services, which saw the closure of the school bus service, several nurseries and half the borough's fourteen libraries. This was presided over by chief executive Tony Elliston after a divided Labour group led to a hung council.
2000’s – Hackney made cuts of £70 million over 3 years in its first year alone. The projected savings of £13 million led to further cuts including vital services. This included further nursery closures, surviving libraries faced further budget cuts, home help support was reduced to visits of half-an-hour, grant money to the voluntary services were cut by 38 per cent, clothing awards for children reduced, play group funds were slashed, the criteria for cheap bus passes was limited, the Citizen’s Advice Bureaux’s budget was cut, six youth centres were closed over a period of three years and this led to the occupation of the Town Hall. This economic austerity was extended to the Borough's workers who in October 2001 were forced to accept poorer pay and conditions or face dismissal and given 90 days to sign the new contracts. The workers signed the agreements but produced written protests that the agreements were signed under duress. The extent of the Council's financial burden was reported in a policy and finance committee report in December 2000. The report said: "In total, the council pays around £68 million in interest on capital debt. The majority of this interest is related to housing debt."
2010 - Initially, Hackney was forced to accept cuts of £70million over four years caused by the global debt crisis created by the toxic loans administered by the banks. But at a Town hall meeting in October 2010, Mayor Jules Pipe announced an expected increase of cuts of up to £60 million in the first year alone instead of the projected £32.9 million. This increase may have been due to a near £40 million budgetary shortfall found in its financial forecasts and published from a Cabinet meeting on the 25th January 2010. Mass local authority cuts were announced by communities secretary Eric Pickles on 13 December 2010 who said: "Every part of the public sector has to play its part...I have sought to achieve a fair and sustainable settlement for local government." This led to the Town Hall being occupied again. Hackney faced the maximum in cuts of 8.9% despite reassurances of 'a fair and sustainable settlement' even though Hackney is Britain's fourth poorest borough. The priorities of Hackney Council itself are questionable given it set aside a budget of £541,000 for graffiti removal and flyposting up until the Olympics. Hackney Council cut Children and Young People's services from £79m in 2010/11 to £69m at a time when youth unemployment was at its highest levels.
In total from 1995 to 2011/12 the amount wiped off the Hackney’ council’s budget and away from community support and projects in just 15 years equals £160 million with a projected £23 million set to come off in 2012/13 and further millions not yet defined over the following two years.
2011 - Riots
National policy, local affectNational policy has also had severe impacts on Hackney in addition to the local budgetary priorities of the Council. These have taken shape in the following form.
Education - University fees were raised and the Education Maintenance Allowances of up to £30 a week to support low-income family students wanting to stay on in education were scrapped in 2011. Only 4 per cent of those living in social housing have degrees, compared to more than 20 per cent of owner-occupiers. Nearly half of social tenants have no qualifications above Level 1, compared to fewer than 20 per cent of owners.
Housing - Poor Hackney families will be hit by the Government policy to impose a £20,000 annual cap on housing benefit. From next October the maximum rent that the Government will help towards will be the lowest third of rents in an area. Even if a working household is meeting the bulk of the rent themselves, it will only be topped up to the level of the cheapest local rents, not the actual rent paid.
The council estimates that there are around 800 families in the borough who will now find that their level of benefit will not cover the cost of their current rent. If their landlords will not agree to lower the rent levels, these families will be forced out of their homes.
Legal Aid - Hackney faced the second highest cuts of legal aid services, which are essential to those being denied services. The cuts led to cuts of £950,845.20 to the legal aid budget. The Citizens Advice Bureau said Housing issues are on the rise for people Under 25. The Charity said that young people account for 1 in 4 of all homelessness enquiries. This follows a previous cut to local legal services in 2001 following the failed privatisation of the benefits system administered by private company ITNET behalf of the Council. This scheme cost Hackney £36 million and directly led to closures as a result of failures by ITNET. The company itself made a profit of £12.6 million that same year.
Policing - Stop and search - An Equalities and Human Rights Commission report titled 'Stop and Think' published in 2010 reveals, that police stop and searches continue to disproportionately target black people across the country with the exception of Durham. 'High excess' stops and searches (i.e. often black people are not given a reason for the search and the search is speculative rather than on the basis of a reasonable suspicion explained) of black people in Hackney totalled 7,556 in contrast to 577 Asians (this group was still disproportionately targeted compared to the white population.
The riots in Hackney which started around 4pm were reported to have been caused by a stop and search situation escalating into a confrontation with police.
Cuts, inequality and crime
It’s about inequality -
Following the Hackney riots, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas asked David Cameron, “Can the Prime Minister reassure the House that comprehensive impact assessments will be undertaken before his government introduce any more policies that increase inequality?”
Or is it?
The Prime Minister responded by saying: “Everyone wants to see a fairer and more equal country but I have to say to the honourable lady that young people smashing down windows and stealing televisions is not about inequality.”
According to the police
A Crime and Disorder audit report by the police in 2001 says: “the levels of crime [in Hackney] continue to be high and are linked to the poverty and deprivation experienced within the Borough." And despite this clear indication between crime and poverty, the council cut youth services from the budget from £4 million to £1 million from 1989 until 2002. The Audit showed that a fifth of all known offenders in the borough were under 18 years of age with significant rises in the 15 to 18 age range. That figure increased to nearly a third of all recorded crime being committed by under 18’s in 2001.
Finding a solution
Efforts to tackle the problems of youth crime were recognised in a report titled 'Hackney Youth Crime Reduction' strategy commissioned by Hackney council about youth crime in 2008. This policy aimed to join up youth provision in order to help youth achieve their potential and avoid or leave crime and gang related activities. The scheme drew upon national evidence examining the causes of offending and changing negative outcomes. The main premise was that every child matters. Data from Hackney showed a disproportionate number of black or black British young people within the criminal justice system (29% of offender with 53% in Hackney. 57% of all offences are committed by re-offenders and nearly 42% of victims are female."
Then abandoning it
This successful integrated youth crime prevention scheme was not only abandoned but further cuts were made to youth schemes in 2010. These included a new youth structure called 'Young Hackney' which had merged Youth Services, the Youth Support Team and Youth Offending Team. The Hackney Citizen reported Campaign group committee member of 'Youth Fight for Jobs’ Suzanne Beishon as saying; ‘this will give more weight to youth workers with experience of youth offending, changing Youth Services’ focus from a support network to a more punitive body.’
"The young people in Hackney are being seriously neglected". This warning shot came from Hackney resident, former Hackney councillor and Conservative Mayoral candidate Andrew Boff in April 2010. During this time, Mr Boff along with youth workers called on the Council to invest not cut youth services. Annual statistics in 2010 showed a 29 per cent increase in gun crime in the borough but Andrew Boff considered the real figure to be much higher, as a lot goes unrecorded.
Conflict of inequality
The new City Fringe
Hackney lies within an easy commutable distance to the financial City. For years it was an ideal location, geographically suitable for commuters, low property prices, an ideal area for expansion of housing development. However, high crime and poor housing meant nobody cared or dared to take advantage of these benefits. That all changed over a decade ago, when a power struggle between the financial centres of Frankfurt, Canary Wharf, and the City of London took place, leading to an aggressive expansion of new housing built predominantly for City employees on the fringes of the poor and marginalised Hackney and Tower Hamlets. This area was now described as the 'new' "City Fringe" linking it directly to an expansion of the City of London and its business environs. These schemes are euphemistically described as 'regeneration' when it is essentially modern day land grab for profit.
These regeneration schemes have directly impacted on the youth particularly their sense of ownership in their communities and the areas in which they live. A regeneration website called ‘Invest in Hackney’ said: “Businesses looking for the optimum location from which to serve the City are now considering areas such as Kingsland Road, Dalston and Mare Street, (Hackney) as very real alternatives."
These were riot affected areas.
The expansionist regeneration schemes were first started in the Hackney area of Shoreditch which became the first recipient of money in a Government scheme called ‘New Deal for Communities’ (NDC). The scheme was originally set up to provide finance to the poorest areas in the country in an attempt to attack “the core problems of deprived areas.” Shoreditch received £57.4 million and initially residents sat on a board to decide where the money needed to be spent. The board made up of local residents decided the money needed to be spent on the existing dilapidated council housing stock. This prompted then housing minister Lord Falconer (New Labour) to withhold £20 million of the allocated money saying this idea was unsustainable. Alongside the new gated communities, the regeneration of the area resulted in a vast increase in wine bars, clubs, businesses, houses for City workers and a spiralling crime rate. The properties in this area are no longer affordable to local residents.
The Crime and Disorder audit report of 2001 recognised Shoreditch as one of the crime hotspots within the borough stating; “This is a developing area and has seen an increase in the number of commercial premises and entertainment venues…High crime categories in this area include violent crime, robbery, vehicle crime and business crime, particularly non-residential burglary.” The last two crimes in this list reflect the crimes during the riots.
Selling the community
The priorities of the council were focused entirely on sorting out their debt at the time of the expansion, and set about reducing their stock by embarking on a "Property Disposal Programme". The purpose was to raise £70 million over the financial year of 2001/2. The result; a cascade of property disposals leading to the closure of scores of community resources from nurseries to ethnic community centres, legal advice centres to libraries. The Property ‘fire-sale’, failed to reach its target by £70 million and led to further debt after the council suffered a £20million shortfall as properties were sold at a fraction of their value. The response from Central government was to lend Hackney £20 million pound as an ‘Unsupported Credit Approval’, effectively putting Hackney in more debt.
Property developers versus Social housing
Hackney Council sold nine buildings in the now much sought after area of Broadway Market as a package to property development company Stirling & Investments Ltd for a total of just £250,000 despite the need to show "best value". In addition, Stirling & Investments also received regeneration money to renovate the buildings which were sold at a profit. The bid by Stirling & Investments was preferred over housing association Notting Hill Trust despite the desperate need for social housing amongst youth.
One-bedroomed flats in Broadway market now sell for £410,000.
House price rises
Today Hackney is a mix of housing that sees dilapidated estates, set next to gated-communities. The policies of Hackney Council have directly impacted on Hackney families and contributed to social deprivation and inequality, through community asset stripping and public service cuts. Investment in the borough has been mainly focused on a wealthier resident, and house prices have boomed, alongside crime rates. Since the year 2000, house prices in the borough have increased by 197%. The new Hackney may well suit the recent incomers, but for the poor, the separation between the haves and have nots increases, both nationally, but even more so locally within Hackney.
Most politicians claim that the riots had nothing to do with inequality but represent a moral decline in our society. In fact it was only Caroline Lucas who raised the question of inequality in the House of Commons debate soon after the riots. Cameron’s response that “smashing down windows and stealing televisions is not about inequality” is perhaps likely to fall on deaf ears as the disaffected youth note that Cameron is a millionaire; same too for the coalition cabinet who have 23 out of their 29 members as millionaires. The rioters were wrecking their own community, but whose community is it? Hasn’t their community been sold off to the highest bidder? Why should the disaffected people on the streets of Hackney care about their community, when all their efforts for improving it are rejected by both central and local government, policies to help them have been abandoned, and the rising cost of living is actually make their lives harder. Their community is up for sale, they cannot afford it, and what was once theirs is now gone.