A commentary by Professor Mike Hough
The 2021 Earl’s Court Ward Anti-Social Behaviour Petition was submitted to Felicity Buchan MP for Kensington on Thursday 3 February. 1109 people signed the petition asking for ASB and Shoplifting to be included in the Earl’s Court Crime stats. The petition was launched in July by the Earl’s Court Square RA, the Earl’s Court Safer Neighbourhood Panel and ourselves, the Nevern Square Conservation Area RA. Information was gathered by email, newsletter and two street stalls outside M&S on Earl’s Court Road and represents a cross-section of Earl’s Court residents old, young and everything in-between.
This note offers a commentary on the Anti-Social Behaviour Petition conducted by the Earl’s Court Safer Neighbourhood Team Panel in collaboration with local residents’ associations. I am an academic criminologist, and much of my research has focussed on the policing of drug markets and anti-social behaviour (ASB). I was a resident of Earl’s Court for some years until 2007 and served as a member of the Kensington and Chelsea Drug Action Team, the inter-agency body led by RBK&C and the Met, which at that time was responsible for local drug policy.
The petition was available for signature from July 2021 until November 2021, and people could sign pen-and-paper or electronic versions. Its wording was as follows:
We, the residents of Earl’s Court Ward, ask that all Anti-Social Behaviour and shoplifting figures are incorporated into the police crime figures so that data is more accurately registered for police strategy at the Met, Earl’s Court Safer Neighbourhood Police Team and Kensington and Chelsea Community Safety Teams. We also would like a dedicated public 24/7 Anti-Social Behaviour Action Line to support this ambition and give confidence to our residents that the ASB reported will be recorded and acted upon.
The petition was sponsored by the Community Panel that works with the MPS Earl’s Court Safer Neighbourhood Team, in collaboration with the Earl’s Court Square Residents’ Association and the Nevern Square Residents’ Association. At the time of writing, there were 875 signatures on-line and a further 235 hard-copy signatures – a total of 1109 individuals. Most, but not all, of these were local residents.
As a proportion of the population of Earl’s Court ward, this amounts to roughly 10% of the total population, including children. However, a more appropriate denominator for judging what weight to attach to the petition is the number of adults registered on the electoral register, which was around 6,500 at the last local elections, and is thought to have fallen since then to 5,500 or less – or approaching one in five (19%) of the voting population. Arguably this percentage should be adjusted downwards to exclude non-resident signatories – but then adjusted upward to reflect the fact that some people would undoubtedly have signed on behalf of their entire household.
Is this response rate high or low? The petition is certainly a reliable indication of concern about ASB amongst a significant minority of residents, from a wide range of housing types and income groups. Given the reluctance of people to engage in petitions of this sort, I would interpret the response rate as indicating a worrisome lack of confidence in the handling of local ASB and problems associated with local drug markets, that needs to be taken seriously by local senior managers in the MPS and RBKC.
The substance of the petition
The organisers of – and the signatories to – the petition feel that the Earl’s Court ward has lost out in the allocation of recent additional resources for Neighbourhood Policing Teams as a consequence of the funding formula used by the MPS. Senior MPS officers have confirmed to RBKC that across the Met, there will be an additional 650 officers assigned to neighbourhood policing, 500 of which will be assigned to town centre teams, the remaining 150 being assigned to Dedicated Ward Officer (DWO) posts in wards that have greatest policing needs. Earl’s Court ward has not been designated as an enhanced safer neighbourhood ward and has actually lost some Neighbourhood Policing staff and will in future have the Met standard allocation of safer neighbourhood officers: 2 Dedicated Ward Officers (DWOs) and 1 Police Community Support Officer.
Although I do not have access to the funding formulae used to underpin these decisions, I understand that recorded crime rates for selected offences are a central element in them. It is this that the petition seeks to challenge. The sorts of anti-social behaviour that are especially prevalent in Earl’s Court are excluded from the formula, and in any case typically result in a crime report only when an arrest is made. As a consequence, recorded offences of Class A drug supply, for example, or those for shoplifting, hugely undercount actual levels of relevant criminal activity. This is in marked contrast to recorded offences of wounding, robbery, burglary, or car theft, which many victims routinely report to the police.
Clearly police resource allocation decisions should take into account the important factors, and not simply the easily measurable factors. On the information available to me, it is unclear whether existing quantitative resource allocation formulae for neighbourhood policing can be readily and easily tweaked to include reliable indicators of the prevalence of drug-dealing, aggressive begging, public drunkenness, and other forms of ASB. The petition is right in highlighting the need for additional ways of capturing information on ASB through an ASB action line. This should readily provide the evidence needed to deliver what the petitioners so clearly want: extra resources – and effective action – to tackle these problems. In considering resource allocation to neighbourhood policing, I would expect full consideration to be given to these factors. There are strong arguments for recognising and responding to the concerns that gave rise to the petition – and it is to these arguments that I shall now turn.
Taking ASB seriously in Neighbourhood Policing
When Neighbourhood Policing was being developed within the MPS and elsewhere in the late 1990s and early noughties, much of the intellectual underpinnings were provided by the work of Professor Martin Innes. He argued that some forms of crime and disorder have a disproportionate impact on public perceptions of policing and of social order, signalling to local people – much more than the run of everyday crime – that the police are losing control. Visible drug dealing, aggressive begging and street prostitution often function as ‘signal crimes’. If the local police fail to get a grip on these offences, public trust is placed at risk, and police legitimacy is squandered. Neighbourhood policing in the MPS was designed precisely to counter this process, providing ‘reassurance policing’ by tackling signal crimes and disorders. Whilst the terminology of reassurance policing has disappeared, the arguments remain sound.
Related to this thinking is an older set of ideas that if visible street crime and disorder is left unaddressed, affected neighbourhoods may reach a tipping point where the acceptability of law-breaking is signalled to potential offenders, and other forms of crime accelerate. The Earl’s Court ward has been through cycles of decline and renewal. It lost its somewhat seedy reputation as bedsitter-land for back-packers and transients in the 70s and 80s, but in the 1990s, various factors collided to stimulate a vigorous open drugs market (and a less visible sex market). These factors included: good transport links (including a tube station at the intersection of three lines); houses in multiple occupation providing low cost-housing; high levels of street activity; plenty of ‘shoplifter friendly’ shops; and displacement caused by effective policing of other better-known drug markets and sex markets such as King’s Cross. In time, the area was brought back under control though a combination of targeted policing and improved treatment provision for problem drug users.
By 2006 or 2007 the area was generally regarded as having made a good recovery from entrenched ASB problems – but then the financial crisis hit London and over a decade of austerity followed. The MPS lost resources, and the extensive programme of treatment services for problem drug users was cut back. I cannot be certain about this, but the strength of feeling represented by the petition strongly suggests to me that local residents are picking up – from plentiful signal crimes and signal disorders – that the area now is losing ground again. What is probably needed now is some serious political will to halt this progress. The strategies deployed in the late 1990s may need to be adapted, but whatever is done will obviously require proper resourcing, and close liaison between RBKC, the MPS the British Transport Police, CNWL, and commissioners of supported housing.
About the author
Mike Hough is an Emeritus Professor at the School of Law, Birkbeck, University of London and previously University of London Professor of Criminal Policy from 2003 until 2016. Prior to his academic career he was a senior researcher in the Home Office, where he and a colleague designed the British Crime Survey (now, Crime Survey for England and Wales). On leaving the Home Office he set up an academic research centre, now the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research (ICPR), which he directed until his retirement in 2016. Mike has around 300 publications, and his most recent book is Good Policing. He was President of the British Society of Criminology from 2008 until 2011. The European Society of Criminology awarded him the 2020 ESC European Criminology Award in recognition of his lifetime contribution to European criminology, and the British Society of Criminology awarded him its 2021 Outstanding Achievement Award. He knows Earl’s Court well, as he was a resident until 2007 and was previously married to Cllr Linda Wade.
 Figures supplied by Cllr Linda Wade.
 Crimes that have identifiable individual victims often go unreported to the police, and unrecorded by them, but the statistics of recorded crime for these offences can nevertheless serve as reasonable indicators of demands on the police for those categories of crime.
 See, e.g., Martin Innes (2014). Signal Crimes: social reactions to crime, disorder and control. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 James Q Wilson and George Kelling were the first to proposed this “Broken Windows” thesis in the US. It has subsequently fallen out of favour through mis-identification with “zero tolerance policing”, but the Broken Windows principles still strike me as sound.
 See pages 20-24 of this report: https://popcenter.asu.edu/sites/default/files/problems/drugdealing_openair/PDFs/Edmunds_Hough_Urquia_1996.pdf