Anti-social behaviour: a view from a London estate

Short article with comment on anti-social behaviour, ASBOs, government policy and class in the London Borough of Lewisham.

Tackling anti-social behaviour is a major priority for both local and central government – according to them, at least. Tony Blair plans to advance his “respect agenda,” with the appointment of a “respect czar.” Meanwhile, south of the river, Lewisham Council “has successfully secured twenty current Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) with more being sought,” according to their website. One of those ASBOs was put in place to stop a teenage boy coming on to my estate.

Two responses to this could be, on the one hand, “Only twenty? Things can’t be as bad as I’d thought. Perhaps Lewisham is the place to live work & learn, like the council tell me it is.” On the other hand, we might say, “Only twenty? And only one on this estate? It’s like the Wild West out there. The council needs to take its finger out.” It seems to me that both of these responses fall short of the mark. If anti-social behaviour is a problem, ASBOs are not the solution. To see why, we need to look at ASBOs as part of a wider agenda.

The first item on the ASBO agenda is consultation. We used to have regular residents’ meetings on this estate. Not always exciting, but a chance to talk about what was going on, and what we wanted doing about it. Then last year these were replaced by regular meetings hosted by Circle 33, who manage our estate, to discuss anti-social behaviour. Turn-out at the first of these was zero, and they’re not happening any more. Not to worry however – there’s always the four-page glossy leaflet which proudly told us about the one ASBO that the council had managed to secure on the estate. Sending out leaflets like this is part of Lewisham’s housing policy.

Elsewhere in this issue, you can read about Lewisham Council’s plans for its stock of 34,000 properties. Apparently keeping public housing public is not an option. My estate is going down the ALMO route. And how much were we consulted about this? How many meetings were organised to discuss it? None. It seems that Lewisham residents are only worth consulting about some things and not others.

The second item on the ASBO agenda is community. New Labour talks a great deal about “rebuilding communities,” and see their emphasis on tackling anti-social behaviour is a part of that. However, what kind of communities do they want to build? Not the kind that stand up for themselves, instead of running to the council or the police with all their problems. The best way to tackle racist graffiti is not phoning the council and having someone coming to paint over it. It’s building a community where racism is not tolerated. Some people are afraid to tackle anti-social behaviour on their own – with good reason. The task of building or rebuilding communities is the task of the community itself – the whole community. We cannot rely on the help of those who only seem to show their faces either at election time or when there’s chance of getting their face in the local paper. Neither can we rely on the kind of “community leaders” that the council listen to, confident that they’ll hear their own views being echoed back to them.

The third and final item on the ASBO agenda is a word that you won’t hear, either from New Labour, either in parliament or on Lewisham Council. That word is class. Remember when Prince Harry got an ASBO for dressing up in a Nazi uniform? Or when Euan Blair got an ASBO for being drunk and very disorderly in the West End? Thought not. It seems that anti-social behaviour is restricted to places like Lewisham, and to the people who live here. Elsewhere, it’s called “high spirits.”

Article published in Freedom in 2006