Friday, 30 June 2006

Posturing and preening about respect As I sort the final text for our book Respect in the neighbourhood, which should be published in November, I've been wondering perversely whether the government would spoil our pitch by starting to take a more mature approach to the subject. It doesn't seem to be happening. They have followed Monday's eccentric announcement of a 'Respect Squad' with another tub-thumping press release today in which Tony McNulty challenges police and practitioners 'to take a more robust and unremitting approach to tackling anti-social behaviour...' Before this all dissolves into ridicule, let's just take one alternative perspective. I've been working off and on over the past year on a low-income estate in west London and have posted the occasional comment here about the issues faced by residents. (There's a general essay here). When I think about the pertinence of the government's posturing in relation to that estate, this is what I think: for most if not all of the residents I have spoken to, respect is far more about public services delivering what is due to local people who pay their service charge, than it is about dealing with some of the more erratic behaviour of their neighbours. Dealing with anti-social behaviour is not distinct and dominant in their eyes, but is a comparatively small part of the expected role of authorities who distinguish themselves by their absence. In this context, ministers rippling their muscles and a government department preening itself on doing what should be done routinely and without fuss, comes across as being in poor taste at best. A point I try to make in the book is that policy needs to address five points about local quality of life: neighbourhood stability, an ordered and walkable environment, stronger informal social networks, opportunities for formal community engagement, and a reliable official presence. If those five themes are addressed appropriately, I suggest, respect will look after itself. Constantly to be banging on about belated efforts to address just one component in the last theme, with very little recognition of the first and third in particular, simply drains the amount of respect any of us is likely to feel towards the policy makers, in my view.
Anti-social behaviour vignette As if to take me to task for the views I expressed the other day about the Respect Squad, I just had a lengthy phone conversation with a woman in a tower block. She is experiencing some pretty unpleasant and intimidating behaviour from her neighbours above and not getting much joy from the anti-social behaviour unit to whom she has repeatedly complained. Does this justify the notion of a flying squad? My friend told me she dreads late afternoon on a friday because that's when the noise really starts. The neighbours know that she can't get any response from the ASB Unit over the weekend, so they turn up the volume and start the banging. Apparently an ASB officer came recently during the day when things were fairly quiet, but turned in horror saying 'what is that dreadful noise?' They haven't really started yet, says my friend, but together they went up, the officer calling through the door with all the fearful authority of a sunday-school teacher, 'don't do that it's not nice.' Will the threat of the mission squad doing picturesque SAS-type tricks ten floors up have an impact on the performance of the local authority? That part of the logic may have justification - my friend will now go back to them quoting the Home Office press release - and I'm glad that this conversation has given me the opportunity to reflect further on the policy. Always willing to revise my opinion and learn, I hope. But does the failure of local agencies to apply the powers they have, really justify the policy and its publicity?

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