No safe havens

19 Aug 11
Judy Hirst

Who’s minding the shop? This is the question being asked – literally in the case of looted and burnt-out high streets – after a summer of social and economic turmoil.

The riots that raged through England’s cities in August have prompted a showdown between the government and the police over who was to blame for the widespread loss of control.

But another kind of flash-mobbing – by the markets in response to the eurozone and US debt crises – has also caused much soul-searching about political leaders failing to get a grip.

The prime minister’s announcement of a ‘fight-back’ against the rioters, including possible curfews, evictions and withdrawal of benefits – and the chancellor’s insistence that Britain is a ‘safe haven’ in a sea of global economic unrest – have done little to steady nerves.
The calls for stronger government intervention grow louder by the day.

Some may insist the riots were a product of ‘criminality pure and simple’. But it is hard to dispute the links between rising poverty and youth unemployment, family dysfunction and crime.

With UK growth prospects being regularly downgraded, the prospects for our inner cities look grim indeed. All of which poses a problem for a government wedded to the light-touch, small-state strategy that has produced severe cuts to frontline community services.

In its first flush, the coalition took an axe to big government and made a bonfire of quangos like the Audit Commission (see cover feature in magazine). But it had not thought through what came next.

Now, to coin a phrase, ministers have been caught asleep at the wheel, if not on their sun-beds.

How, without tearing up its fiscal strategy, is the coalition going to restore law and order, support troubled families and generally fix Cameron’s ‘Broken Britain’? And how, in such a deregulated environment, is it going to assess and audit the impact of its policies on society at large?

The local authorities tasked with clearing up after the riots (see Councils count the cost of clean up) – and preventing it all happening again – must also make at least 20% budget savings over four years.

The alternative – relying on punitive sentencing and other measures to keep a lid on future unrest – could prove short-sighted in the extreme.

The past few weeks have shown there really are no safe havens from disorder – of either the social or financial variety. The sooner politicians learn this the better.

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