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No Crime. Know Your Neighbours. 2006-06-29

Posted by clype in Articles of Interest, Intolerance.

Window locks and sophisticated alarms are ‘all very well’, but the answer to stopping burglars could well be knowing your next-door neighbour’s name and regularly ‘twitching your curtains’.

‘There is no such thing as society,’ said Ms.Margaret Thatcher, which has since been interpreted by critics as the zenith of the every man for himself attitude.

But the then prime minister also went on to say:

‘There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then to look after our neighbour.’

This echoes the current government’s reported consideration of ‘don’t moan, take action’ as a slogan for tackling of anti-social behaviour — that the first defence against crime is the attitude of the individuals affected.

While ‘bobbies on the beat’ and ‘tougher sentences’ are the most popular solutions to crime, a Home Office report now says ‘social cohesion’ and crime levels are connected.


  • Sense of belonging;
  • Common vision;
  • Diversity appreciated;
  • Similar life opportunities;
  • Relationships between people of different backgrounds.

-Source: Home Office.

The study, which interviewed 10 000 people in 20 areas, found a sense of community is the strongest indicator of crime rates, particularly burglary and vehicle crime. As a predictor, it’s more important even than deprivation levels.

Director of the Applied Criminology Centre at The University of Huddersfield Professor Mr.Alex Hirschfield, has studied this phenomenon before.

Alex Hirschfield
‘The most cohesive areas have crime rates similar to middle income areas.

‘If you see somebody walking down the street in a cohesive area, perhaps going equipped for burglary, you have individuals that would challenge that individual, raising the risk of them being apprehended.’

So those nostalgic for the days of streets of terraces policed by fastidious residents might just have a point.

Recent arrivals:

The death of traditional industries, extended families broken up by the search for better jobs, places where ethnic groups don’t intermingle, and the rise of the singleton — each a factor in the rise of places where people do not have the sense of belonging and fellow feeling they once did.

Mr.Hirschfield says that neighbourhoods where people don’t talk to each other have many recent arrivals and people living in rented accommodation. Nor are there residents’ association or community activities.

‘Socially mixed and very heterogeneous areas in terms of ethnicity do not tend to be the most cohesive.’

Which could describe London or other cities across the UK. How many of us can honestly say we ring the police when a car alarm goes off, or know the names of families at the other end of the street?

But it’s not simply that curtain twitchers defend their street against criminal strangers.

Criminologist Professor Mr.Paul Rock, of the LSE, explains that the pattern of where people commit crimes is like a dumbbell — a cluster where they live, another where they work and a thin strip between.

Paul Rock
‘Most offenders don’t tend to travel far from their own home. Familiarity with the housing type, familiarity with the terrain, you can make your exit quickly. People see the risk they will be recognised. In a cohesive community the ability to recognise is enhanced.’

In short, if your house is burgled it is likely to be by someone living nearby. And your chances of preventing that behaviour depend on the power of the community.

Criminologists and sociologists talk about ‘social control’ — not vigilantes, but community ‘elders’ who exert subtle pressure on offenders and their families.

Freedom v community:

But in many deprived communities, there may be resistance against calling the police, either due to perceived police harassment, general ill-feeling towards the authorities, or a misplaced sense of solidarity. Those who do can often be intimidated, and not just by the suspects themselves.
But while many communities tolerate quite high levels of petty crime, there’s a notion of what is intolerable, says Mr.Rock.

‘Over the more outrageous kinds of criminal activity — paedophilia, rape — cohesive communities do seem to be able to act together and almost “drum people out of town”.’

In London and other big cities some people speak of a trade-off — low community spirit, but more freedom and tolerance because of the lack of social control.

And community spirit can be a fragile thing. In Liverpool, ‘Belle Vale’ and ‘Netherley’ were new communities constructed in the 1960s and ’70s as part of the efforts to improve housing conditions. Mr.James McLoughlin has lived in the area for 33 years and knows what it is like when community spirit leaves town.

‘It was known as Alcatraz. There was a lot of crime. The council moved in problem families and community spirit went out of the window.’

Unlike the terraced houses in much of the rest of the city, there was little love for the mid-rise flats with their distinctive ‘walkways in the sky’ — a now much-ridiculed facet of modernist planning.

‘It was basically a haven for criminals. If the police were called, the criminals would be looking over the walkways laughing at them.’

But Mr.McLoughlin has led local residents’ associations in encouraging people to report crime and anti-social behaviour, to install and maintain their own CCTV cameras, to get police to prevent intimidation of residents, and to lobby the council to maintain facilities.

Crime rates are down, house prices are up and community spirit is back, Mr.McLouglin says.

‘People are becoming more and more together, interacting.’

And if ‘Belle Vale’ can restore community spirit, there might just be hope for all of us.

Contact Paul Rock:

Contact Alex Hirschfield:



1. Alka - 2006-07-02

Its a very good post. If you permit me, I will like to post it on my blog too.

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