The Prime Minister’s speech last week set out his five priorities – concerning inflation, economic growth, the National Debt, NHS waiting lists, and people entering illegally on small boats. But there was another topic included later on in his speech, anti-social behaviour:

“Strong communities are also built on values, on the golden rule: treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. But too often, a small minority breaks that golden rule. They spray graffiti on war memorials. Discard needles and Nitrous Oxide canisters in children’s playgrounds. Gang together and cause disorder and disruption. Anti-social behaviour isn’t inevitable or a minor crime. It makes life miserable for so many and it can be a gateway to more extreme crimes. So, this government will work tirelessly to crack down on anti-social behaviour, giving police forces, mayors, and local authorities the tools they need and giving communities confidence that these crimes will be quickly and visibly punished. Wherever you live in our United Kingdom, you should be able to feel proud of your community.”

On Saturday, The Times reported:

“Michael Gove, the levelling-up secretary, is to lead a new cross-Whitehall taskforce dealing with low-level crime, drug use and graffiti after polls consistently showed it was top of voters’ priorities, particularly in red wall seats. “Focus groups are showing that antisocial behaviour is something people really care about,” a senior government source said. “It is something that we’re seeing — and Labour must be seeing it as well because they’re starting to talk about it.”

I see the objection to politicians being too beholden to focus groups – that they end up following rather than leading. Often it can ultimately make for bad politics if tough and unpopular decisions are dodged. If there is a poor outcome from such weakness a couple of years later the electorate is not likely to reward it. But when the polling and focus groups are saying what issues are of public concern, then it is sensible to take note.

Councillors can be swept into power on “pavement politics” issues and then find themselves in charge of multi-million pound budgets and development schemes, forgetting about these “minor issues” – broken swings, dog fouling, etc. That mentality does not usually end well.

Cleaning off graffiti is a good issue where the Government could make a dramatic improvement for a relatively small cost. The Rev Jesse Jackson felt “the vulgar words and hieroglyphics of destitution on the walls” encapsulated once proud neighbourhoods in the United States declining into slums.

It is unsurprising that ugly and derelict buildings are more likely to be scribbled on than beautiful and functioning ones. It is ubiquitous on the stairwells in council tower blocks and on the boards of empty shops. Roger Scruton observed that social housing should often be called “anti social housing.” The underlying solution is in changing our planning policies. It should be easier to turn shops into homes. The concrete jungles of a typical council estate offer long blank walls and plenty of “cut throughs” – semi public, semi private, nooks, perfect for the vandals. They should be replaced with beautiful, traditional homes where communities can thrive and take pride in their surroundings.

Less ambitious would be an effort to deal with redundant phone boxes. The K2 model, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and introduced in 1926, should be retained and repurposed as miniature libraries or defibrillator containers. But the ugly ones should simply be removed to reduce street clutter. Often these eyesores are vandalised as well as covered in graffiti.

But the big immediate initiative should be the establishment of a free, national graffiti service. It would include a website and a phone line allowing graffiti to be reported – either for your own property or anywhere else. The Government would run it but different private contractors could be used for different regions, towns or cities. Though operating to a national standard there could be local input. Community liason officers could be given lists by MPs, councillors, and voluntary groups who had undertaken “grot spots”.

When I was a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham I made inquiries about our graffiti removal service. I was told:

“The Graffiti Action Team removes graffiti from the public highway and parks and open spaces. They do not usually remove graffiti from private or housing land. If there is graffiti on private land then the Council would contact the owner or person responsible for the land and request they make provision for removal of the graffiti. This would usually be completed by a private contractor. On occasions it is necessary to serve a legal notice on the property owner to ensure removal is completed.”

It seemed to me the idea of serving a court order for someone who has already had the distress of obscene or racist graffiti painted on their home to get it removed would effectively mean punishing the victim twice. With the Council’s chemicals and jet sprays it would be pretty easy to remove it for them – but it might be quite expensive or physically challenging for an elderly or vulnerable person to manage it for themselves. The Council’s graffiti removal budget was £199,000 a year for highways and parks. Rather inefficiently, there is a different service for council estates and the costs “not monitored separately.”

I proposed the Council offer a free graffiti removal service for all property – business, residential, housing association, council housing, privately owned homes, shops, offices, Transport for London. The cost of the extra work involved in this simple comprehensive service would be partly offset by reduced administration costs. But I didn’t get anywhere.

Gove should take up direct responsibility. Knowing that graffiti would be rapidly and thoroughly removed would hugely discourage it from appearing in the first place. Dealing with it would discourage more serious offences – gangs are fond of using it to “tag” their territory.

40 years ago the criminologists George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson wrote an article for The Atlantic outlining their Broken Windows Theory:

“In Boston public housing projects, the greatest fear was expressed by persons living in the buildings where disorderliness and incivility, not crime, were the greatest. Knowing this helps one understand the significance of such otherwise harmless displays as subway graffiti. As Nathan Glazer has written, the proliferation of graffiti, even when not obscene, confronts the subway rider with the inescapable knowledge that the environment he must endure for an hour or more a day is uncontrolled and uncontrollable, and that anyone can invade it to do whatever damage and mischief the mind suggests.”

So if you deal with minor issues like vandalism and graffiti, the community becomes empowered, the law abiding reclaim the streets. To coin a phrase, they “take back control.” Criminologists are still arguing about the data over the extent of the difference it makes in wider crime reduction. But it is surely common sense that it will have some favourable impact.

What would it cost to have an effective national graffiti service? Those figures I mentioned earlier from Hammersmith and Fulham work out at around £1 per person per year. Let us suppose that is typical. The population of England is 56 million, so perhaps around £56 million a year is spent. Allocating £100 million for the enhanced national service should be enough to get the job done properly. There could be a pilot. Test it out in Dudley for a couple of months before going live nationally. It could include people undertaking Community Payback duties.

There could be a few teething problems. Some contractors will do a better job than others. The odd Banksy masterpiece might be scrubbed away causing distress to the Guardianistas. Boo hoo. But the prize would be huge. A tangible lift in morale in this Coronation year. The gloom giving way to national renaissance. Let’s hope Gove gets on with it.

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