Looking back over last week's riots David Wright says Fire and Rescue Service leaders missed an opportunity to make a collective argument against cuts.

It would always take a big story to get the economic crisis and Afghanistan off the front pages of the papers. August 4th provided that story with the eruption of riots across the UK. The images of fires burning out of control across that capital and other cities will undoubtedly be used emblematically by the media, politicians and others with vested interests, points to be scored and agendas, hidden or open, as a sign of the UK in decay or crisis.

Given the freshness of the events this first draft of history may be proved wrong with time but there are conclusions that may be drawn from what we have seen on our screens in the last week or so.

Certainly the parallels with the 1980s riots in Brixton, Toxteth, Broadwater Farm, Brixton (again), Handsworth have been highlighted. The position of the UK economy at the bottom of a cycle, a government attempting to make radical changes in the way the country works. In the 1980s it was deficit reduction and a rejigging of trades unions legislation, today a massive reduction in public spending affecting public sector workers, the unemployed and those on disability and other social benefits, student fees etc.

All these reasons have been cited (subliminally or otherwise) by those seeking to blame social unrest and tension for the violence. Others, mainly politicians, have been raising the spectre that there is a generation of criminals who when unshackled from the restraints of a civil society, will rampage and steal what they can take and burn what they can not. Undoubtedly, this will be argued over for the next two decades until social tension erupts again, and many doctoral theses produced. However, for those living in the present turmoil and in the interface between law and disorder, are there any general or even specific lessons that have become apparent even at this early stage?

 

Missed Opportunity

One can have nothing but sympathy for the Police Service, criticised by politicians for heavy handed management of recent riots in London - G20 - and now criticised by armchair warriors for the slowness of intervention ("robust" intervention with maximum force has been called for by more than one politician, using their vast life experience as a student, political researcher and member of parliament as the basis for making such calls) and their "failure to use appropriate tactics".

Understandably, the retorts from chief police officers has been pointed, and full advantage has been taken to point out the consequences of impending cuts on the Police Service for public order. This could have been an opportunity for the FRS to emulate their colleagues in the police but the Fire and Rescue Service may have already lost the opening to make a collective argument against the cuts facing the FRS over the next four years. Instead of thanking politicians for their underwhelming comments of appreciation, opportunity could have been taken to make the point about the effect of FRS budget reductions on operational resources, and the impact on the work done by the Service in mending broken community fences. And the collateral damage of this omission could be significant.

The fire and rescue service, despite all the work that has been carried out within communities working particularly with vulnerable groups, children from backgrounds that occupy the margins, ex-offenders and "nearly" offenders, the elderly and those newly arrived from other parts of the world, has still not been fully recognised by government and ministers for the role it has carried out. In many inner cities, working with other organisations including the Police Service, crime has reduced, arson has dramatically fallen and so have accidental fires. The potential damage to the building of these delicate relationships with those that may be outside mainstream society could be both severe and long term and set back the safety and community agendas for decades.

But fortunately, there is a glimmer of hope that all has not been lost. The parents of three young men from the Asian community in Winson Green, Birmingham, instead of igniting what could have been a justifiable period of disorder, deflated tensions in the area by their brave and selfless pleas to stop any revenge attacks and disturbances. Irrespective of the motives of these people (and one must assign the most noble of motives to this act), this represents a vastly different way of addressing the issue of rioting within deprived areas.

Bernie Grant's defense of rioters following the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985 was possibly an expression of the communities at that time. If that is the case then there is a positive note to be taken from the reaction to the riots this time. The condemnation of the rioters (or the avaricious "criminals" as termed by senior politicians) by all sectors of the community shows just how far society has evolved in the last 25 years or so.

See the September issue of FIRE for full story.

Posted August 15, at 1530 by Andrew. Comment by emailing: andrew.lynch@pavpub.com