Clay Shirky spoke at Demos today (get the podcast here). Unfazed by jet lag and our infamous coffee, Clay answered a flurry of questions including one I managed to sneak in on knife crime. Could social software, I asked, help stop the current spate of knife crimes in London? Before I’m accused of suggesting that Twitter may be the missing tool in the Government’s fight against knife crime, consider the subject of Clay’s new book Here Comes Everybody. In a nutshell it’s about what happens when people are given the tools to do things together.

Clay suggested that citizens could help maintain law and order in their communities by utilising social software. But, as he pointed out later, social software only goes so far - it can help catalyse change in society and help citizens police their own communities but you need other ingredients to sustain it - like civic pride - something we are told is sorely lacking. Consider the following snippet by Charlie Leadbeater twelve years ago:

people are less prepared to take responsibility for maintaining the fabric of law and order. They rely on wealth, power and impersonal agencies to deliver security. We should be aiming to create a more civic society, better able to police itself. Anonymity means we have less purchase upon the actions of others.

That got me thinking about past and current community schemes that seem to have been forgotten about in the blur of announcements by politicians and tsars, and general political bickering.

In the past the problem has tended to be that governments have opted to pursue anti-crime initiatives funded by the centre as they are relatively easy to command and control. And herein lies the problem;  first - funds go to developing new processes and maintaining the bureaucracy rather than supporting communities and second; the focus of attention tends to be on the response rather than preventing crime occur in the first place. 

One example highlights this all too well:  the dramatic decline in Neighbourhood Watch schemes.

In 2000 roughly 27 per cent of households belonged to a Neighbourhood Watch scheme – that roughly equates to 6 million households (or 10 million people). In 2006/07 the number of households dropped to 16 per cent or 6 million households. That’s before we get onto the falling number of local neighbourhood watch coordinators (and I suspect you don’t even know your local coordinator -  I don’t  - and its not certainly not  Little Britain's Sid Pegg).

According to the latest BCS sixty-five per cent of respondents reported there was not a scheme currently operating in their local area, with three-quarters of these saying they would join a scheme if there was one. Underfunded and hardly ever used a potential line for communities is laying wasted.

Instead of investing in impractical and superficial initiatives (like national service for 16 and 17 year olds) or creating more bureaucracy and targets the government would do better to use the funds it has to target specific areas and support local communities – neighbourhood watch schemes could be a simple and effective answer to current  problems like knife crime while social software will make such schemes easy and simple to use for Generation 2.0 and the rest of us.
(Why not invest in providing households with a neighbourhood watch scheme pack?)

Mick Kelly

Well done Charlie Edwards for suggesting Neighbourhood Watch has been overlooked in the current search by police and politicians for an answer to dealing with knife crime - and other issues that blight local communities. Yes membership has plunged over the past eight years. But with four million households in Britain covered by a Watch schene, that makes Neighbourhood Watch - by some distance - the largest voluntary community movement in the UK. Yet it rarely appears on the radar screens of politicians or commentators. Unless it is to repeat the stereo-type of the curtain-twitching, clipboard-hugging neighbour, out at night snooping on cars to check the tax disc is not out-of-date. The reality is very different. There are countless examples of Watch groups making a real difference (for the better) in their local communities. Just google Neighbourhood Watch and see for yourself some of the examples of neighbours acting together to build secure and more confident communities where they live. In Australia, Neighbourhood Watch is celebrating its 25th anniversary. And unlike here, membership is on the up. The reason given is, perhaps,  surprising. It's the Baby Boomer generation who have stepped forward to run Neighbourhood Watch schemes in their locality. The one-time Mods, Rockers, and Flower People are now filling their spare time helping neighbours to do things for themselves and create a genuine pride and sense of community spirit. The problem for politicians (and think tanks) is that too often the search for answers to a particular problem requires them to come up with something new - and preferably something that is radical. When maybe, just maybe, the answer to the problem is something that's not new, is not sexy, and worst of all, involves people over the age of 50.

Mona Chalabi

I agree with you that neighbourhood watch schemes are a highly effective tool in building community resilience. However the community resilience built may not necessarily be the type which is best deployed to deal with knife crime.The dramatically declining participation in neighbourhood watch schemes this decade has been in part due to the negative associations we have about them (as your link to the Little Britain comedy sketch demonstrates). For many, neighbourhood watch schemes have become synonymous with twitching net curtains and elderly Britons, with whinging about stolen milk bottles and scepticism about 'the new folk down the road'. In short, the schemes not only fail to engage  with the values and behaviour of contemporary Britain but more damaging still, they are of no interest whatsoever to the young individuals, often of an ethnic minority, who are most able to provide the information and skills needed to combat knife crime.Yet I still see merit in your suggestion. What about a youth neighbourhood watch scheme where all those attending are in it together, equally liable to be branded a 'grass'? Or would the separation of age brackets undermine mutual understanding and go against the very principle of community resilience which it seeks to build? Whatever the case, whether it is neighbourhood watch or witness protection schemes, the roads for the community to provide the information needed to deal with knife crime need to be better paved and better lit.

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