The ‘big society’ approach to tackling anti-social behaviour

Today a paper published by the Royal Society of Arts argues that we should adapt the first aid or ‘Woolwich model’ to address anti-social behaviour.

Our guest writer is Ben Rogers, a visiting fellow of the RSA and a former Downing Street policy strategist

In 1878 a young army surgeon based in the military hospital in Woolwich, Peter Shepherd, taught the first ever first aid class. Within 10 years there were over 300 centres teaching first aid around the world. By the early 1960s St John’s ambulance had issued more than 9 million first aid certificates globally. Today I publish a paper with the Royal Society of Arts arguing that we should adapt the first aid or ‘Woolwich model’ to address anti-social behaviour. My starting point is that we have a problem with anti-social behaviour.

Crime has fallen, and so has people’s concern about crime, but the proportion of people reporting anti-social behaviour as a serious problem in their area has not fallen over the past few years – though I concede the most recent BCS figures show a move in the right direction. Moreover we know this is a priority for the public – and we know that we as a nation are particularly unconfident about intervening.

A 2006 survey by the Jill Dando Institute found that British people are more wary of intervening that most other European people. Sixty per cent of Germans said they would intervene to prevent a group of 14-year-olds vandalising a bus shelter but that figure falls to 30 per cent in Britain.

Finally, we know that this is an issue particularly associated with young people – in two ways: first, people report that ASB tends to involve young people – often groups of young people; second, young people are more concerned about it than are older people.

My suggestion is that we should do more to skill people to deal with anti-social behaviour themselves – that we should complement the recent drive to strengthen neighbourhood policing, by equipping people to intervene and resolve issues without necessarily having recourse to the police

Training in community safety, I argue, could give people the ability and so the confidence to intervene. This confidence is key. There is actually quite a strongly shared set of standards in this country about what is unacceptable in terms of public behaviour. But we are unsure about intervening. I think there are a number of different factors contributing to this diffidence. There is a concern that the state is not on people’s side.  People are worried for their safety. And they are worried about doing something perceived as inappropriate or about losing face.

So what would training consist of? It would aim to teach 3 core skills:

How to read a situation and judge whether it is safe and appropriate to intervene

How to ensure one’s physical safety and that of others (how to position oneself to as to be able to escape safely, defend oneself and protect others if they are being attacked)

How to manage anger in other people and defuse conflict.

These skills can be taught and often are. The police are taught them. PCSOs are trained in them. Teachers are sometime taught them but more often acquire them on the job. And experience suggests that people who are taught them value them – and they it useful not just in dealing with anti-sociable behaviour but anger and conflict wherever they occur.

Who would these skills be aimed at? Most obviously the public service workforce – especially people who work in the local public realm. And also shopkeepers, publicans and similar. But young people and ordinary citizens can be taught them too.

Download The Big Society approach to anti-social behaviour

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