Why did people end up torching cars… and where do we go from here?

The week after the riots swept England, as speculation about the root causes settled on job shortages and inequality, Sir Stephen Bubb of the voluntary sector umbrella group ACEVO wrote a remarkable letter to the Prime Minister. In it, he endorsed Mr Cameron’s localism agenda and called for evidence based policy-making to mitigate against further unrest whilst challenging the Prime Minister to understand the social context in which the uprisings had taken place. He defined that context as “social immobility and the absence of gainful activity”.

It may be tempting to write off all of the events of the week beginning 8 August as mindless violence. But, as Psychologist Dr. Clifford Stott writes, it is “highly relevant” to note which objects and commodities were targeted. In London, looters stole teenage status symbols: trainers, phones and, to a lesser extent, jewellery; items that “in this age of austerity… are becoming increasingly unobtainable… and it should not be surprising that some are using the riots as an opportunity to obtain them.” Other commentators formulated the term ‘shopping with violence’.

The interesting part of the process creating the desire for these goods is the part that comes before the shopping. Sportswear and mobiles have become status symbols as a result of powerful and relentless marketing. So it’s interesting too that the cycle shop Evans was targeted when the crime-wave rippled out of East London and reached Camden. Specialized and Boardman don’t receive the brand exposure that Adidas or Motorola enjoy, yet Halfords in Catford and Micycle in Islington were burgled along with Evans in Manchester. Apparently bicycles require less advertising, perhaps because people know they’re useful. The desire is latent.

It’s no secret that young people value the freedom and mobility that comes with owning a bicycle. David Eales of community cycle project Ealing Cycle Hub has been surprised at the level of interest in the cycle repair courses he has been offering on housing estates in West London this year. He says: “Having a bike means these young people can leave the estate, something they don’t normally do. It’s a very insular estate. We’ve seen how this broadens their horizons.” David recalls the reaction from young people when he explained they could keep the bikes they were repairing. “Earning a bike by fixing it was a new idea. They were quite confused.”

But the riots also showed us that mobility can also be something to envy. When the violence reached Toxteth, Liverpool, instead of looting, each confirmed crime report included the destruction of a motor vehicle. Census data identifies Liverpool as the area outside London where the highest percentage of households do not own a car.

It’s not as though the people who rioted in Merseyside were destined to commit those offences. In nearby Sefton, young people have been steered away from vehicle related crime, as Cycling Development Officer Ross Adams recounted earlier this year: “At a Bike Club session after school, one of the students pointed out a friend of his being escorted home by the police, in possession of a mini motorbike. I asked the student if he would have been with his friend if he had not been attending the Bike Club – to which he answered “yes”. For me this was proof that the Bike Club activity had provided a diversionary activity.”

These “diversionary activities” require programmes that seek out communities with high crime levels and plan meaningful activity for them, and where possible involve the community in that planning process. It is the voluntary sector, unhampered by a profit motive, that is able to offer a service of this kind. By operating outside the established ‘public services’ and by collaborating with other voluntary sector groups, well-planned projects serve the parts of society that the state cannot reach.

Of course, no voluntary activity takes place in a vacuum, so the commercial economy can benefit from the voluntary sector. Some people participate in voluntary projects because they want to practise skills they can apply in the business world. This was the case with Jamie, who volunteered at Bristol Skate Club, learning to fix broken bikes that people brought in. Skate Club organiser Tim Nokes takes up the story:

“Jamie was eighteen, unemployed and not in education or training but was a regular feature at Skate Club, attending almost every week. It became clear that he was both responsible and well respected by the young people who attended. We used Bike Club funding to buy tools and to send Jamie on a bike mechanics course and the police kindly donated a few stolen recovered bikes. With bike tools, Jamie’s motivation and the donor bikes as a source of spare parts, we were able to offer free bike repairs to young people. With positive support and supervision, Jamie found the platform for his confidence and skills to develop. It wasn’t long before Jamie secured work in his dream job as a bike mechanic.”

In leaving to work at a BMX shop, Jamie joined an industry that is growing despite the economic recession. A report recently published by the London School of Economics quantifies the annual contribution made by cycling to the UK economy at £2.9bn.

Jamie is in no doubt about the benefits of his voluntary experience. He was uncomfortable about submitting quotes for this article but allowed me to reproduce a comment he had previously posted on Facebook. He wrote: “Skate Club, you were my first proper job and I could of not asked for more… I want to say thank you for everything… ‘Keep going’ and help keep projects like Skate Club alive. They’re good for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons”.

Bike Club has trained 300 people to work in the cycle industry, it offers qualifications in the form of youth achievement awards, and has just initiated its 250th voluntary sector partnership. 80% of its groups support people least likely to discover the mobility of cycling. Bike Club has distributed grant funding totaling £522,000 per year which has enabled it to source twice that amount as match funding from other donors.

Yet despite this track record, funding for the project will cease later this year. Bike Club’s parent organisation attempted to secure funding through the current Government’s transport fund, the Local Sustainable Transport Fund, in a bid led by Leicester City Council and supported by eleven other local authorities, but its bid was rejected. Sustrans and other cyclists’ organisations also missed out on funding and a recent report by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations calculates that the charity sector stands to lose £2.8bn by 2016.

We may find that voluntary sector development delivers better value than big-state responses to public disorder, and perhaps it’s on this basis that Sir Stephen Bubb calls for evidence-based policy-making. In his letter to the Prime Minister, he writes: “We should make changes on the basis of a full understanding of what works and what does not – not on the basis of what is in fashion.”

He welcomes the establishment of an independent victims and communities panel, but qualifies this by saying: “It is not just up to Government to address the issues surrounding the riots. Responsibility also lies with others… Some of this is up to us.” Recognising that the causes and nature of the riots varied significantly from one place to another, Bubb goes on to say: “The Government has rightly committed itself to localism, criticising years of centralisation for creating a system where policies are imposed… whether or not they work locally… Now is not the time to forget that commitment, or the logic behind it. One-size-fits-all solutions (such as extension of the National Citizens Service) are unlikely to be the answer everywhere.”

His characterisation of “the socio-economic context” as the “absence of gainful activity” is enlightening, and when deciding how to spend public money, we will do well to remember the link between social mobility and actual mobility, a link that the young people at Ealing Bike Hub and Bristol Skate Club have realised to their benefit.