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Tackling local crime key to ‘levelling up’, says think-tank

Dealing with antisocial behaviour must be made a priority in attempts to boost growth in “left-behind” areas, according to a new report, as the UK government plans a crackdown on street-level drug use.

Findings by the right-leaning think-tank Onward, published on Monday, identified neighbourhood crime as a key concern in five communities in England and Wales.

The report called on local leaders to focus on policing disorderly behaviour black spots and providing preventive youth services.

It comes as ministers prepare to launch a national antisocial behaviour strategy in the coming weeks, potentially including a ban on recreational use of nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas”.

It is unclear whether the proposed anti-crime measures will include extra funding. Critics argue that cuts to councils and policing under austerity have left local areas with few levers with which to tackle the problem.

Onward visited five places — Oldham in Greater Manchester, South Tyneside in the North East, Walsall in the West Midlands, Clacton on the south-east coast and Barry in south Wales — to look at what could be done to raise prospects.

It pointed to concerns in Oldham, Walsall and Clacton over dangers on public transport, street drinking and violence, with residents feeling “powerless”.

“In almost every area we spent time in, this put tackling crime and reducing antisocial behaviour as the public’s top priority for ‘levelling up’,” it said, adding that this often “came as a shock” to local councillors, who “didn’t see it as the key factor holding them back”.

A ban on recreational use of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, is possible © Gareth Fuller/PA

“Levelling up” refers to the Conservative government’s pledge to raise economic growth and prosperity in left-behind areas.

“For members of the public, feeling safe on the streets was an essential foundation to other routes to regeneration: commuting to better paying jobs, spending money in shops or restaurants in the town centre, or becoming a member of a new community group,” the report found.

Public order offences have more than doubled since 2015 across England and Wales, the report highlighted, but in the worst-affected areas they had more than quadrupled.

Onward called for a focus on “hotspot” policing that targets patrols in “town centres, tram stops or parks”, as well as more joint agency working and an increase in youth activities.

A Home Office insider said a new national strategy with a focus on public drug use and “disrupting and tackling antisocial behaviour” was “likely” in the coming weeks.

Jessica Studdert, deputy chief executive of New Local, a network of more than 70 councils, said crime and antisocial behaviour affected “people’s quality of life and neighbourhood safety” but could “easily go under the radar for national policymakers”.

However, she said it was “impossible to ignore” the effect of cuts since 2010 to council budgets; in England these have reduced by around 20 per cent in 12 years.

“As a result, local leaders have limited room for manoeuvre and are forced to focus on immediate pressures at the expense of the community-embedded prevention this report highlights is so integral to social fabric, like activities for young people,” she added.

Oldham council’s Labour leader Amanda Chadderton said it was “easy” for think-tanks to “make a judgment about what is best for our town”, adding that creating real, long-term change was harder.

“If the government was serious about levelling-up, they would be putting power and resources in the hands of local leaders to do just that,” she said.

The Labour party has linked falling public confidence in community policing to a halving of police community support officers since 2010.

Rayna Prime

Rayna Prime

Rayna Prime Editor