If ministers want to curb violent crime in our cities, they should liberalise our failing drug laws

Ah, Camberwell. Image: Getty.

On Sunday, home secretary Amber Rudd argued that the “biggest driver” of rising violent crime was the illegal drugs market. The growth of so-called county lines gangs, often recruiting young children to transport drugs around the country, is fuelling our £5.3bn black market in cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy, and more.

The violence of crimes from drug gangs is spreading outwards from our cities, with an estimated 4,000 teenagers in London alone caught up in smuggling operations. Between 2014-15 and 2016-17, the share of homicides where either victim or suspect was a drug user or dealer increased from 50 per cent to 57 per cent. Competition among drug dealers has reached such a high level that some are offering loyalty cards for repeat customers.

But as politicians across the ideological spectrum discuss Band-Aid measures like tougher restrictions on buying acid and banning home deliveries of knives, the elephant in the room is our failed policy of drug prohibition.

In its recently-released Serious Violence Strategy, the Home Office inadvertently diagnoses many problems of prohibition. It correctly highlights that “grievances in illicit drug markets cannot be settled through legal channels, so participants may settle them violently. This can lead to escalation as dealers seek to portray themselves as excessively violent.”

But this is entirely avoidable: the Home Office goes on to say that “violence can be used as a way of maintaining and increasing profits within drugs markets”. In other words, the escalation happens because drugs are illegal and unregulated.

Gangs are sophisticated businesses, with strong incentives to keep their clients involved and those in their control under their thumb. Gangs in our largest cities run weapons and trafficking operations across the country. They use income from the drugs trade to finance their lifestyles, and the need to protect this feeds the firearms they trade – as seen in Liverpool where the Anfield gang jailed last year were found to be running the country’s second largest combined gun, drug and people trafficking operation with activity in rural Cheshire, Lancashire and even down to the South Coast.


The violence these gangs create is entirely the result of forcing such markets underground. Legal, regulated alcohol companies solve their disputes through competition in the marketplace, and the courts if necessary. Illegal, unregulated drug gangs often solve their disputes by the less formal methods of murdering and robbing each other.

And when police bust one gang, the resulting power vacuum can lead to heightened violence as those remaining vie for dominance. Economic evidence suggests that the introduction of medical marijuana laws (MMLs) in the USA led to a decrease in violent crime in states that border Mexico, and more wide-reaching liberalisation will have even greater effects.

But it’s not just turf wars between rival gangs that disappear under legalisation. Problem drug users are free to seek treatment without fear of arrest; campaigners are currently calling for drug consumption rooms in London, Glasgow, and elsewhere.

They are also less likely to fund their habit through theft. Washington State’s decision to legalise cannabis in November 2012 caused a reduction in thefts of between 13 per cent and 22 per cent.

Property crime is likely to plummet if other drugs were legalised and regulated according to relative harm levels: official figures show that nearly half of shoplifting, thefts, robberies and burglaries are committed by regular heroin and crack cocaine users.

Recreational users are also less likely to face violent crime. You don’t tend to get robbed at knifepoint purchasing alcohol in an off-licence, but buying cannabis in a dark alley is a different matter. Parents would no longer have to worry about the possibility that their teenage children are getting into cars with complete strangers in order to buy drugs, and any dealers who survive their market being swept away from them would face a police force with far greater resources to put them behind bars.
Last week, David Lammy MP told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that, “The police and our country has lost control of [the] drugs market.” He’s right – but more prohibition and more police on the beat won’t solve the problem of rising violent crime. The definition of insanity is continually doing the same thing and expecting different results.

But we needn’t. The state is imposing the spillover cost of violence onto estates in our cities and onto the young people caught up in gang warfare. It has the ability to take this power away from gangs and become a world leader in harm reduction. The only way to gain control of the drugs market is to make it legal and regulated.

Daniel Pryor is head of programmes at the Adam Smith Institute.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.