It takes a riot
‘It takes a riot’ is how Michael Heseltine headed his first memo when he was appointed, as Environment Secretary, to deal with the aftermath of the Toxteth riots 30 years ago. He is now returning to the City for a three week check up tour with locally born, but Hertfordshire based, ex Tesco boss, Sir Terry Leahy (Liverpool Vision). One Nation Tories are already calling to relaunch such schemes (Understand a Little More, Condemn a Little Less
Rene Kinzett says the Conservatives would do well to follow the example of Michael Heseltine and try to understand troubled communities) in the aftermath of the most recent riots.
In 1985 Brixton, Handsworth and Broadwater Farm all had riots. Like Toxteth they had riots in 1981 too. The bad relationship of local communities with the police - and the death of black people in proximity to the police were common features then as now. The Specials ‘Ghost Town’ was recorded in 1981 but its mix of urban decay, unemployment and heavy-handed policing would be a madeleine moment for that decade were it not routinely used to underscore footage of any following British riot. Moreover 1984-85 was marked by the Miner’s Strike though best now remembered as the setting for film and musical, Billy Elliot. Times were troubled as was authority.
Around this time I was working as a junior Civil Servant in the Home Office making grants to charities that worked with ex-offenders. As part of my job I had to visit hostels around the country. I would meet the workers and residents and members of the local management committee. These committees were often made up of seniorish probation staff and socially minded magistrates and lawyers. Some had a religious connection.
I was not senior enough to know of plans in the Home Office, letalone those of the Department of the Environment - then post Heseltine but still focussed on urban deprivation - to deal with urban hotspots that had had riots or were on a list of symbolic locations. But in 1986 eight Task Forces were announced under the Government’s Inner City Initiative as part of the Urban Programme which also included City Action Teams and Urban Development Corporations. They were in: Handsworth, Bristol St Paul’s, Leeds Chapeltown, Leicester Highfields, North Peckham, North Kensington, Manchester Moss Side and Middlesbrough (well pre Ray Mallon, Robocop, and now elected Mayor). Another 13 were added in 1987-1989 though 2 were replacements for some wound up!
The National Audit Office Report Regenerating the Inner Cities gives more detail and a generously pusillanimous summary of the effectiveness of these programmes.
I was promoted at the time these were being set up and was appointed Deputy Task Force Leader of North Kensington Task Force (NKTF) on secondment. It covered the Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill area. It is an extremely diverse area with a history of urban activism and disorder mixing trustafarians with a diverse black community with pockets of irish, moroccan, spanish and portuguese.
But as James Meek (In Broadway Market) says speaking of the East End in 2011 this:
is not the mixing city its liberal inhabitants would like to think it is. Loving the cultural diversity of London as a spectator-inhabitant is not the same as mingling with it. The yuppies don’t go to the white working-class pubs, and the white working class don’t go to the yuppie pubs. The Muslims don’t go to the pub at all and the post- Christians don’t go to the mosque or the church. The young don’t mix with the old. You don’t marry outside your income and education group. Parents segregate their school-age children by class and race.
Building on Meek Owen Hatherley notes:
Edinburgh might wall off its poor in Muirhouse or Leith, and Oxford might try not to think about Blackbird Leys, but in London, Manchester/Salford, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Nottingham—the cities that erupted on Monday 8th August- the rich live, by and large, next to the poor: £1,000,000 Georgian terraces next to estates with some of the deepest poverty in the EU.
North Ken was like that 25 years ago. Indeed my occasional sentimental journeys to Carnival suggests it still is. (I should also note that I did some fieldwork for my PhD in car crime at and near Blackbird Leys after I had left the Home Office)
The Task Force leader was a cigar smoking woman mid ranking civil servant and the only other staff was a locally recruited young woman of bajun extraction. The Task Force leader was eventually replaced by a young black man from the third sector. I, a white man, continued to go out and meet the community while the Leader met the Council and local business. I suspect our various inclinations to the maverick were seen to be useful in defusing local hostility.
All, bar NKTF, the other TFs were in Labour controlled local authority areas but it faced more opposition from the paternalistic Tory Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea than many. Local activists were wary but willing to engage with the TF. We could promise little money (pilots, seedcorn, exploratory assessments) but some ‘bending’ of current schemes (Community Programme and Youth Training etc) and the ear of Ministers (ours was Ken Clarke, now Lord Chancellor). So mini Merseysides.
So one day might be trying to broker the establishment of a Black Business Bureau, another talking to the local Housing Associations or visiting the many competing community groups - some divided by politics some by which mas camp they favoured in Carnival. And many meetings about the existence, route, policing and commercial potential of Carnival (plus ca change).
At that time local communities refused to countenance the formal Police Consultative Groups recommended in the Scarman Report but met with them once a month at a local church near the All Saints Rd (aka ‘the Front Line’ and then home to the Mangrove Restaurant and Community Organisation). Meetings leading up to Carnival were best attended and generally more of the various white communities might turn up. And yet most of the questions to police were hygiene ones - would there be enough portaloos to reduce tendency for people to piss doorways and gardens.
The Police and Local Authority representatives - and NKTF - could expect tough questioning. But some of the paranoia can be seen in that the Police were suspected of running undercover or extra patrols, that had not been cleared by back channels, because a white Nissan had been seen with no marking other than the word Patrol (It was a Nissan Patrol).
I’m not sure the TFs worked in any big sense but it enabled close connection between some sections of Government and civil service and the people. I might expect to meet the very people I’d been discussing a grant or a project with the next day when shopping for vegetables on the Portobello Rd. And it was clearly less damaging than harsh sentencing and ignoring communities in pain.
My greatest regret is that I was unable to help Brinsley Forde of Aswad set up a music studio for young people. He came by on the second day we opened. I was out of my depth, finding my feet and he never came back.
Not much recompense but, instead of replaying Ghost Town, I offer these lines’ from Aswad’s African Children.
In a concrete situation
Wonder do you know where you’re coming from
All of the nation are living in these tenements
Precast stonewall concrete cubicals
Their rent increases each and every day
Structural repairs are assessed yet not done
Lift out of action on the twenty-seventh floor
And they work they smell