When did the looting end?

Reflecting further on the Neil Kinghan report I cannot help but feel a resonance with another report by David Hunter I read a few months ago on public sector health partnerships (which I think has relevance to all partnerships).

Hunter’s conclusion, after getting through more than £250,000 on research, is that there is no proof that partnerships improve outcomes. In fact, they sometimes hinder improvements by placing restrictions on the frontline staff, and often, improvements credited to ‘partnership working’ only happen because those frontline staff are just getting on with it.

In other words, if you got rid of the formal partnerships nothing would be worse, and may well be better.

This goes against the orthodoxy that has existed since the nineties that partnership working is ‘a good thing’. Indeed, it’s often cited as ‘the only way’ now we are in a time of strained public finance. But while Hunter found lots of unquestioning endorsement of partnership working – partnerships are good because they just are – it seemed that no-one had really thought to assess the value of them.

The traditional model of emergency planning involves some fairly hefty documents drawn up by the relevant agencies, attempting to detail the responses to various situations, which should interface with each other where appropriate.

Somehow, all those plans came together on the night of 8 August. Simplistically you might think that on 8 August the police were responsible during the actual disorder, then the council took over for the clean-up and any response. But the true picture was far more complicated, with several organisations being involved to varying degrees throughout the period.

But, of course, nobody’s plan involved large-scale disorder or looting or rioting in Clapham Junction, with the police stretched across the capital and unable to respond, and a large fire affecting retail and residential property. So how did it work?

For all their length and complexity, emergency plans can never foresee every eventuality. The military adage that ‘no battle plan survives contact with the enemy’ is true in emergency planning. You can plan for the start of a generic situation, like public disorder, and you can attempt to foresee and plan for what happens next, but ultimately events unfold in a different way and decisions made in response to changing circumstances. (I’ve already commented on my belief that across London the rioters and broom armies were able to respond to circumstances far more quickly than any public agency.)

In any event, given that few people will have a comprehensive understanding of any of the plans, it might all seem a bit irrelevant.

But what links Kinghan and Hunter? Let me provide a couple of examples.

Throughout the rioting, the town centre manager was on the scene, and is mentioned in Kinghan’s report:

the role played by Lorinda Freint, the Town Centre Manager for Clapham Junction, has been universally praised, and described as “heroic” by one interviewee. She spent the whole evening helping people who were frightened by the disorder. She and the manager of the Wessex House nightclub provided a safe place for people to go to and helped them to escape the area without trouble.

She was a fabulous resource, working at the frontline, but doing so under her own direction. A prime example of that would not have been out-of-place in Hunter; exceptionally good work taking place despite the emergency plan and partnership structures which would not have had her on-site at all.

But if the communication had been in place, it’s not hard to see how much more use she could have been not only in helping those affected, but also in providing intelligence to the police and others, while still working within the general framework of the response laid out within the emergency plans. The response was good, but an opportunity was missed for it to be better.

Then consider the broom army. Again, not something that featured in any of the emergency plans, and again a fabulous resource ready to help everyone meet the aims of cleaning up Clapham Junction. In this example, however, that resource was used (after a few hiccoughs) to great effect. Perhaps because it was impossible not to communicate with several hundred broom-wielding residents!

Even before 8 August I’d been thinking about Hunter’s report in the context of emergency planning (and in the context of real examples like Norway and Japan), so immediately Neil Kinghan’s recommendation that frontline staff be involved and informed as part of the emergency plan struck me as absolutely right – the evidence of Hunter and 8 August backs this up. I just wonder (and since emergency planning is well above my pay-grade it can only be idle speculation) if we could go even further in thinking about the invaluable role, and discretion, of frontline staff.

Last week I wondered if most people had moved on from the riots, mentally consigning them to history and getting on as if they had happened in another time or place.

Last night I might have got an answer when 50 people attended the first of three public meetings being held at Battersea Arts Centre as part of the Kinghan review into the disorder.

I really didn’t know what to expect, and as a result am finding it hard to work out my reaction. Was an attendance of 50 good, and if so, why? To be sure, having 50 people to a public meeting (and I’m not a great fan of public meetings) is a large number by Wandsworth standards. But then this was also held in the most affected part of the borough, where thousands of people – residents and businesses owners – can legitimately claim to have been affected by the riots, so maybe 50 wasn’t such a good number.

In fact, the numbers weren’t even that good. A significant number of the audience fell into the category of ‘usual suspects’. (The term might seem derogatory, but isn’t intended that way, I include councillors as usual suspects.) At least thirteen councillors were there, as was the MP, Jane Ellison, and I would guess about half the people attending had some ‘political’ involvement in the area. This is not to discount their contribution, but we all have the advantage of being able to feed into the process in other ways.

The meeting itself was interesting. Neil Kinghan chaired it remarkably well and people were polite and courteous in hearing out others, even if they disagreed. Indeed, it struck me that the audience was remarkably balanced. For each burst of applause for someone speaking out against eviction or looking to blame the riots on social or economic factors, there was applause for someone putting the contrary view that most people managed to resist the temptation of a new TV and trainers regardless of deprivation.

In fact, it was notable that the first round of applause wasn’t given to anyone making political points, but to someone speaking up for Battersea in the Battersea/Clapham debate!

A large part of the meeting focused on the police. A few people pondered whether the police themselves were part of the cause, through heavy-handed use of stop and search, but by far the biggest area of comment and questioning was the police response, with people asking about the availability of officers on the night (52 Wandsworth officers had been deployed elsewhere) and the likely subsequent actions that will be taken.

Reflecting on the meeting today it struck me that there were two schools of thought about the causes: pure criminality or social and economic. Obviously it’s overly-simplistic see it as totally black-and-white, but most people leant more towards one school than the other.

I moved towards the criminality theory during the course of the evening.

So while some blamed bankers, I just couldn’t reconcile that with people attacking local businesses and sports fashion retailers rather than the banks.

And while some asked exactly what youth facilities were open on 8 August, I couldn’t help wondering whether that means the council has to act in loco parentis 24/7 if it wants to avoid criminality (or what difference it would make when over half those arrested are adults).

And if others believe we’ve discovered the price we pay for heavy-handed policing, does protesting against that really need people to plan drop-off points and collection vans for their stolen goods?

Fundamentally I couldn’t help listening to the different viewpoints and realising that it is deeply offensive to the vast majority of people who, regardless of circumstance, manage to go through their lives as law-abiding members of their community.

Everyone involved in the riots knows the difference between right and wrong. The question is not what excuse they (or we) offer for making the wrong decision on that night, but rather how they got to a stage where their moral compass was so weak, they could over-ride it at the expense of their local community.