On Monday 6 March a 34-year-old man, Thomas Cashman appeared in a Manchester court to plead not guilty to the murder of nine-year-old Olivia Platt-Korbel. The killing in Dovecot, Liverpool represented the climax in a series of three shootings that rocked Merseyside in the space of one week, all allegedly linked to gangs and organised crime.
To add more misery on a city that has had its fair share of gun violence over the last two decades, the murder came exactly 15 years to the day that ten-year-old Rhys Jones was killed in similar fashion.
As a university academic who studies crime on Merseyside and still lives on a former council estate, the one question I keep asking myself is will this ever end?
What is the alternative?
Will we ever see a time when marginalised young people have the chance to grow-up in environments where access to real legitimate opportunities replace the need to drift towards troublesome youth groups and later into the cut-throat violent world of adult organised crime? In reality, of course there will always be people who are fuelled by greed, a selfish few going after the quick and easy money, and who are prepared play Russian roulette with not only their own life, but those of innocents.
Statistics for firearm discharge dropped to a 21 year-low on Merseyside in 2021, suggesting a lull, mainly due to Covid restrictions and the enduring investigative persistence of Merseyside Police. However, one death is still one death too many, especially if it involves the death of an innocent either caught up in the crossfire or a victim of mistaken identity.
How can we see an end to this once and for all?
The solution, sadly, is not one that will happen overnight. Personally, I believe it can only come about as a result of cultural change, for starters a focus on the great imbalance that has forever existed between criminal justice and social justice. This begins with the very communities themselves. Members of Generation Z living in areas such as North Huyton, Kirkby, Kensington, Bootle and Anfield are largely still disenfranchised from any real legitimate opportunities that can lead to better social mobility.
An out of touch government talks of levelling up, but so far its emphasis has been more on physical infrastructure than real issues directly relevant to people themselves. Moreover, there is also a cost-of-living crisis. It is dragging the most vulnerable families further into poverty and potentially into the path of crime, in some cases for the first time.
Unsurprisingly, not a single central government figure has publicly discussed the cost-of-living crisis and its link to a potential increase in crime.
Situations such as this will provide a veritable playing field for Merseyside’s criminal underworld. We live in a society of constant, conspicuous consumption, reinforced by the internet where the acquisition of high-profile material goods is associated with success. Add to this, a population of young people destined to live day-by-day on the breadline with no real direction and the outcome becomes unavoidable. As one young participant in my study into Merseyside troublesome street groups told me, summing up his involvement “I had no choice, it was on my doorstep”.
One solution which is all-to-often aired by local authorities and community policing is to build community resilience or mental toughness, or in other words, “things will not change but hey! we can build your tolerance to its continuation!”.
Over the years, there has been an over reliance on such a passive approach. Even if we take resilience building in its true definition, that is, to restore something back to its original state of well-being, most of the communities affected have chronic histories of poverty and marginalisation. They have never actually been in any state of what could be described as well-being.
What communities actually need is real change brought about by real solutions that begin at the earliest stage of childhood and continue through to early adulthood. My own research, undertaken in 2018, highlighted one example of this.
Interviewing over 50 young people, half of whom had become embroiled in troublesome youth groups (a term I prefer to use as opposed to street gangs since we are still no closer to defining what a gang actually is), I noted the difference brought about when young people were given opportunities to make peer connections beyond their residential boundaries. In academic jargon we call this ‘bridging’. Bridging offers the chance for invisible commodities such as personal experience to be picked up and translated into positive values and beliefs that can act as a powerful counter-narrative to any deluded thoughts about criminality being the only way out.
We contrast ‘bridging’ with ‘bonding’, where individuals are drawn together as a result of experiencing the same environment and issues. Many of the communities where crime has become normalised, thanks to its constant presence, demonstrate high levels of bonding.
For communities to flourish, they need to have a balance of bonding and bridging – the opportunity to open up and make connections beyond place and space. Gentrification is not the answer. With gentrification we see an affluent professional few move into new build stock alongside a post-war social housing population, many of whom are benefit dependent, creating a have and have not community as opposed to any attempt at creating a social mix.
Community Wealth Building (CWB) can be another step forward to generate positive life chances. This people-centred approach to economic development first emerged in the late 20th Century and sees so-called local councils harnessing their “anchor institutions” (local institutions/enterprises such as hospitals and universities) to build closer working relationships with their communities. This is done by choosing to invest in local services as opposed to outsourcing to suppliers in other parts of the country.
Within the last few years, Preston has become a blueprint for how local communities with dwindling economies can take control of their destiny and generate their own wealth. When austerity hit the lowest communities the hardest, including Merseyside, with budget cuts to local authorities of up to 56%, the Preston model flourished. During the 2016 UK general election campaign, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, praised it as a model town for economic development, and other Labour MPs began to endorse the model.
In similar fashion, role modelling is promoted as a powerful tool, although a prerequisite is for the role model to have gained goals that are attainable by the many not just the few.
In this case, local authorities should carry out skills audits in the local community, specifically to find out what qualifications residents have, whether gained through academia or work. that can be utilised and be showcased as alternative pathways to the downward spiral of crime. Hopefully, my future research will be highlighting this.
These approaches have begun to show promise in helping deprived communities to break the grip of gangs, guns, and grafting. I am continuing to research in this area with these communities and I hope to see real progress in the results.