Nationally, we have seen an increase in serious youth violence and gang-related crime in the last five years.
Across England and Wales, the number of deaths caused by knives, guns and violent assaults have increased by over a third in the last five years. Knife offences have risen by over 70% to a nine-year high.
The number of under-18s admitted to hospital with knife injuries rose by 33% between 2013/14 and 2017/18. London has seen similar trends to those nationally.
There are various reasons put forward for the rise in serious youth violence, ranging from cuts to youth services, policing budgets, and failure of youth and safeguarding agencies to evolve to deal with a twenty first century problem.
It is undeniable however that the significant rise in serious youth violence and knife crime in England and Wales is due to an evolution in our home-grown gangs. These gangs have evolved in the vacuum left by cuts in youth services and policing budgets and a failure to keep track of their organised crime methods; also because of rapid marketing through social media.
This has not only had a profound impact on young people in our metropolitan cities, but also, via county lines activity, affected areas of the countryside (particularly deprived towns and seaside locations) which have previously not seen gang activity.
Recent studies of gang activity have revealed:
The numbers of those involved in gang activity has grown, with young people joining gangs far earlier and staying locked into gang activity for longer.
Far from providing the camaraderie and the element of a ‘missing family’ dynamic, gang activity is becoming ultra-violent, more competitive and more difficult to escape. Gang members face “greater competition to get noticed, to get ahead of the gang or to build reputations. As a result, gang members engage in ultra-violence in order to maintain street capital”. Consequently, this “increasing cycle of violence has altered social norms for some groups of young people with ultra-violence now a part of everyday life.”
The result of this cycle is now being played out daily on television, and in social media and newspapers.
Gangs have now developed their own gig-economy which can deliver drugs to the user by motorbike in London and other big cities, or else young people are groomed and coerced into acting as couriers for county lines activity. The drugs markets are themselves becoming saturated and overcompetitive, leading to more gang-related violence as gangs compete over post-codes and territory.
Social media is being widely exploited by gangs to recruit new members, attract fans, broadcast and brag about achievements, market the gangs and advertise drug dealing. Social media can also be used to trap members within gangs; many face the threat of live-streaming humiliating videos or images as a means of coercion and control. It is a 24/7, 52 weeks-a-year tool which can lead to young people suffering high levels of anxiety and mental health problems.
Impact on our communities
Communities are now experiencing the impact of gang and county lines activity on a daily basis, with:
- Increased acquisitive and violent crime – this is now affecting rural counties, not used to these levels of violence, as they import the ultra-violence normalised by street gangs and created by increased competition in local drugs markets and gangs.
- Violence reverberating back to local families, creating tensions in family homes – placing pressure on relationships and already stretched local resources – policing, social services and safeguarding teams, healthcare providers.
- Young people – are being exploited, coaxed into debt bondage, suffering increased levels of paranoia and mental health issues caused by relentless 24/7 gang activity.
- Young people are also arming themselves as a means of taking back control or self-defence, which in turn is contributing to increased knife violence in communities.
- Vulnerable groups (e.g. homeless people, people with mental health needs and young women) are being exploited as they often don’t realise what they are getting involved in. Vulnerable people’s homes are ‘cuckooed’ as a cheap, convenient ‘trap house’ for gang dealers.
Increase in child sexual exploitation and sexual abuse – from grooming, coercion tactics and young women and looked after children being ‘gifted’ to trap houses for sexual gain.
The Response so far
In response to the growing problem, local authorities and communities have developed various responses to tackle these issues. The effectiveness of the community’s response is being undermined however by piecemeal information sharing, a lack of cohesion, duplication of effort and resources. There is also a failure to deliver the right ‘education’ for members of local communities on what really are the underlying causes of the rise in youth violence and gang membership, as well as how to spot the signs and tactics of gang activity and what action to take. The projects with the best outcomes have directly involved young people and have taken education into schools and youth centres.
Effective enforcement action taken by the police and social services teams can only go so far. Cities who have seen and tackled similar trends and activity in the past have adopted a more joined-up approach, often referred to as ‘a public health approach’. This approach sees police and criminal justice agencies, health providers, schools, community and voluntary organisations work more effectively to provide well-timed support to those affected, or at risk of becoming affected, by gang-related activity.
Strong partnership responses are currently being developed within individual local authorities to address local issues, but we have seen from our work in this area, that the effectiveness of these new partnerships are being undermined by piecemeal information sharing, duplication of effort and resources and a failure to target the right ‘education’ for members of local communities. Consequently, there is very little information available to parents on what really are the underlying causes of the rise in youth violence and gang membership, tactics commonly used by gangs, what the warning signs are and what to do about it.
Our initiative looks to build strong, resilient communities, appropriately educated on the risks and issues, both locally and nationally, by peers, by people with lived experience, and by experts in the field. This means that whole neighbourhoods, wards, boroughs or cities can take collective responsibility to work with safer neighbourhood partnerships and violence reduction initiatives, as well as the police and health services to effectively challenge gang activity.
The Resilience Programme will explain to communities what’s fuelling rises in youth violence and knife crime so that parents and young people understand the real risks of gang violence and debunk myths that glamorise gang lifestyle.
Resilience Programme will also work across private and public sectors to join up support for families affected by gang crime and signpost those in need of help more quickly and effectively. It will help build resilient communities, capable of challenging the threats posed by gangs.
Agencies are still working today in a 20th century way to tackle a 21st century problem. We are using insights gained from our gang prevention work over the last 18 months to identify gaps in provision for young people and their families. Our Resilience Programme looks to address those gaps.
Our UK home grown gangs are more innovative and ruthless in their business models than ever before and social media and technology have allowed them to extend their reach trafficking young people as well as drugs. Our model educates young people and their families on those risks, giving them the resilience to outthink and outweigh gang elders.
We are actively discussing our carefully costed initiative with relevant companies in the private sector as well as approaching local authorities and public sector organisations involved in the challenges faced by gang violence and rising knife crime.