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Riots: what role trust, sense of place, belonging?

Nobody predicted the August riots across the UK. Many thinkers and commentators, myself and colleagues at the new economics foundation included, have been warning of the risks posed to society by unemployment and poor quality jobs, the disenfranchisement of youth, public sector spending cuts, and growing anger against the elites. But no-one predicted that it would bubble over and express itself in the form of looting, burning and rioting across England’s cities.

There has, inevitably, been much said and written since about why the riots happened. I do not claim to have the answer to the question why, nor offer any immediate solutions to what should be done about it.

But, like many who have commented on different aspects of the riots and the implications for public policy, I put forward some reflections on the role that a sense of place, trust and belonging might play.

First, and importantly, the riots cannot simply be explained by low levels of trust, or by a lack of a sense of place or belonging in our society among young people. After all, most young people didn’t take to the streets, didn’t resort to violence, didn’t wreck their neighbourhood or town centre, and didn’t use it as an excuse to loot.

In addition, many reports of the riots indicate that gangs were a key feature. Rather than those involved having no relationships to people in their neighbourhood it was, in fact, the strength of these relationships which in part spread the disorder. As has been well-documented elsewhere, feeling part of something, a sense of community, is one of the key ‘benefits’ of gang membership.

Yet despite such observations it is difficult to accept that low levels of social wellbeing didn’t play some kind of role. Looking at findings from the European Social Survey, comprising interviews with over 40,000 people across 22 nations:

• People in the UK aged 16-24 report the lowest level of trust and belonging – a key element of social wellbeing – anywhere in Europe

• At a national level, the UK performs lowest on indicators of trust and belonging across eight different dimensions of personal and social wellbeing

• Throughout Europe, unemployment, fear of crime, and a lack of trust in institutions all correlate with lower levels of trust and belonging.

None of the above reflections prove a link between feelings of trust, a sense of place and belonging and the recent riots. They also do not explain why some young people look towards gang membership for a sense of identity, and others do not. Nor why some passers-by got swept along by the opportunism for criminal damage and looting, while others ran for cover.

But at the heart of these findings and observations is, I believe, a valid question of relationships. We need to ask, and in time answer, whether our politicians, our public services, and our own lifestyles build relationships through fostering a sense of trust and belonging, or corrode them? And if we believe relationships, or the lack of them, are in any part linked to the recent riots we need to take account of this when looking for solutions.

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