Viewpoint: Olympic legacy failing the young

PUBLISHED: 12:00 22 April 2018


As has been witnessed for over a year now, knife and gang-related crime have increased in Newham particularly among those under 25 years of age.

This situation raises some questions particularly in a borough that was to be the flagship of the Olympic legacy project that was highlighted in the 2005 bid. Yes, Newham has seen some phenomenal changes in a very brief period, but could that not be part of the problem?

Since the 2012 Olympics, Newham has seen a great deal of investment. The Westfields shopping centre surrounded by new hotels and restaurants is an icon for the regeneration of Stratford which is mainly retail and housing-related developments attracting tourists and other visitors to the area. The Olympic Park is now home to some sports and leisure activities along with loads of private accommodations.

In spite of all these positive changes, the local population remains disadvantaged, with official statistics that mask the urban intricacy of Stratford and the real disparity of income in the borough which often falls along ethnic and linguistic divides.

The new open spaces and sports facilities on the park, along with the housing developments that sprung up as the athletes’ village, were converted into accommodations that are a testament to the Olympics, but they have not achieved their promise to the local community. In fact, the population of Stratford remains transient as housing costs are constantly fluctuating in Newham and properties such as those on the park have very little social housing. Given the national cap on benefit support, those in need of homes in Newham often cannot afford the rents on their limited benefits. Many families are relocating out of London in search of affordable housing and those who remain often live in substandard and cramped housing.

Many of the youth of Newham see the disparity on a daily basis. They also are experiencing the breakdown of local community structures as the change in the housing stock creates a cycle of dislocation. Gangs and drugs are visibly more present on the streets. All of these factors must be acknowledged and considered if any meaningful solution is to be found to the rise of knife and gang violence in London.

Although there are dramatic calls for more police and tougher law enforcement, the police cannot work alone. In research done in the United States on increased crime rates due to gang violence, increasing the police and incarceration has not proven to create meaningful change. In fact, the major deterrent to such criminal activity is not the increased police presence but rather the presence of an engaged civil society prepared to support the policies adopted by law enforcement agencies through cooperation in investigations and reporting of crimes.

The notion that such crimes are a principal-agent problem is outdated. This model developed by the economist Gary Becker saw the criminal as the agent and government/law enforcement as the principal. It assumed that the agent responses to incentives from the government. The government/law enforcement determines the penalities imposed on offenders who are apprehended with the intensity of the law enforcement effort determining the probability of apprehension and the level of crime. However, in reality, this relationship is much more nuanced by the presence of the third party – the community.

Youth gangs do not exist in a vacuum. They do not all of a sudden appear. They are part of the community, and their interaction with the community is critical. By the very definition of a gang, they are a group of individuals who control territory and openly commit crimes within their neighbourhoods. Often the crimes are committed in defence of their territories. Many times, youth who are involved in the gang culture become limited by these territorial boundaries. They do not travel at night or on weekends outside of their zone.

Consequently, gang and knife crimes can be limited by changing the social values of the communities where they take place. What is needed is to ensure that the divide in such boroughs of the “haves and have-nots” does not continue to widen, to ensure that appropriate housing is available and that the Olympic legacy is fulfilled. Without sufficiently strong communities that embrace their surroundings, nurture their youth and see the hope and opportunity, increased law enforcement may sadly lead to the frightening possibility that violent crimes will rise indefinitely. The willingness of local residents to reveal information to the police about gang activity depends on the trust and legitimacy they put in the society in which they live. Gang violence and knife crimes are not solely a function of police and criminals, but the disenfranchisement of our communities.

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