Hackney council's ground-breaking policy of taking out injunctions against
burglary suspects on the
In 1992 there were 340 burglaries on the 980-dwelling Kingsmead estate in
Hackney, north-east London. Some properties were burgled three or four times.
Most of the break-ins are alleged to have been committed by a relatively
small number of juveniles.
Kingsmead housing estate was billed as a victory for the common people.
In fact, it marks an assault on all of our civil rights, reports former
Kingsmead resident Andrew Calcutt
In December 1992 the Labour council made premises on Kingsmead available
to the police for surveillance purposes. In conjunction with officials from
the housing audit team, Hackney police commenced Operation Boston, which
resulted in 13 arrests in January 1993. Two of those arrested were remanded
in custody. In the first four months of 1993, there were only 11 burglaries
on the estate.
In May, Hackney council began an unprecedented legal process: it issued
injunctions in a civil action against five Kingsmead residents. Drafted
by director of housing Bernard Crofton, the injunctions state that if the
people concerned cause damage to the estate, enter flats other than their
own, or assault or threaten anyone on the estate, they will be imprisoned
Injunctions had been sought, explained assistant housing director Rizwan
Razaq 'because there is a lower burden of proof in the civil courts'. While
criminal law demands proof 'beyond reasonable doubt', judges presiding over
civil courts make their decisions on 'the balance of probability'.
'Civil law is less of a palaver than criminal law', echoed chief superintendent
Bernard Taffs of Hackney police, 'what the council has done is brilliant'.
Guardian columnist Edward Pearce was equally enthusiastic. Describing
Kingsmead as 'a Hell Estate...where criminality strolls down the road and
does what it wants', Pearce declared 'the unleashing of the civil law looks
like the deliverer all plagued estates have yearned for'. Referring to the
300 statements collected by police in the wake of the injunctions, he went
on: 'the frightened witnesses have suddenly unfrozen...residents are coming
out on to the walkways and open paths of this estate. They had previously
been too frightened to go out.' (2 June 1993)
Pearce concluded his column by calling on Tory home secretary Michael Howard
to 'endorse Hackney and throw the moral weight of his department behind
Crofton's razor'. Howard duly appeared on PM (Radio 4) and declared
his support for Hackney's initiative.
The 'injunctive relief' brought about by joint council-police-judicial action
has been portrayed as an 'empowering', liberating experience for the people
of Hackney and potentially for the inhabitants of inner-city estates across
Britain. In reality the Kingsmead injunctions are indicative, not of a free
society, but of a drift towards coercive, more authoritarian methods of
The right to trial by jury has always been regarded as a basic requirement
of a democratic society. There have recently been many exposures of the
fact that even the jury system is open to abuse by the courts and provides
no guarantee of justice. Nevertheless it is alarming that the safeguards
associated with criminal trials have been neatly sidestepped by a Labour
While a royal commission has floated the possibility of limiting the right
to trial by jury, Hackney council has already set a dangerous practical
precedent. The assumption that jury trials are an unnecessary 'palaver'
has serious ramifications far beyond the boundaries of Kingsmead. Yet, ominously,
Hackney's actions have been widely hailed as an exemplary initiative which
other local authorities and government departments ought to follow.
When Hackney council applied for injunctions at Shoreditch County Court,
the hearing was held in camera (behind closed doors) after a request
from Andrew Arden QC, barrister for the housing department. So not only
is the local authority sidestepping the procedures of the jury system, it
has also sought to ensure that the only people allowed to hear its case
should be an unelected judge and his officials.
The Labour council has also embarked upon a policy of evicting the families
of individuals against whom injunctions have been taken out. 'We intend
evicting four families', said housing director Crofton, 'because we do not
believe they did not know what their kids were doing'. In the new Hackney
set-up, not only is the accused denied the opportunity to present his case
to jurors in an open court, a unilateral edict issued by the council is
sufficient to find his whole family guilty by association.
The Kingsmead initiative is only one example of a new style of local government
pioneered by Hackney council. Injunctions and eviction notices are to be
taken out against noisy tenants. 'We are particularly determined to deal
with people holding pay parties...and those who run car repair businesses',
said councillor Simon Matthews, chair of the housing services committee.
Full-page adverts in the local paper, the Hackney Gazette, warn rent-defaulters
that the council may put them out on the streets, as happened to 100 tenants
last year. A fast-track system has been introduced to evict squatters within
48 hours. Hackney council employees are also included in the get-tough policy.
The exposure of corruption among council officials is being advanced as
the justification for tightening disciplinary procedures across the whole
workforce. Phone calls are monitored. Sickness can lead to dismissal. The
working atmosphere inside Hackney town hall is increasingly overbearing.
Instead of interrogating the council about its authoritarian policies, press
and broadcasting journalists have welcomed them unquestioningly. For example,
although the burglary-rate on Kingsmead dropped to an insignificant level
before the council took out its injunctions, the media took the police-council
press releases at face value. Meanwhile a member of the Kingsmead tenants'
association I spoke to was far from certain as to why the burglaries had
stopped: 'Something's happened, but you don't know if it was to do with
the injunctions or not.'
Many Kingsmead residents are annoyed by what they regard as the unrepresentative
portrayal of the 'Hell Estate'. Seeing me and photographer Michael Kramer
walking through one of the forecourts, a white man in his early twenties
leaned over his balcony to tell us that 'the media are a disgrace, the way
they have described this place'. Outside the doctor's surgery, a black teenager
agreed: 'A lot of stories about the estate have been fabricated. On the
London Programme, PC Egglington [beat officer] said a lot of things
to boost up the bad men. Now when I say I live on Kingsmead people say "oooohhhh,
Born and brought up on the estate, a man in his mid-thirties was also offended
by what he saw as the London Programme's sensationalisation of Kingsmead.
'At the end they showed the nursery school and the voice said "are
these the next generation of thieves?" Well, my child is in that school
and it did upset me. They are making it out like the whole estate are a
bunch of villains. It's the same as the description of "football hooligans".
It's just not true.'
'I've been here 11 years', said a black youth working on an old car in one
of Kingsmead's forecourts. 'Never any trouble, never been broken into.'
'The residents of this estate are ordinary working class people', said a
white woman with a toddler. 'Of course there are bad apples. But if you
give a dog a bad name it keeps it.'
According to much of the media, the residents of Kingsmead have hailed the
council and police as their saviours. Among the chattering classes of Hampstead
and Highgate, this may seem plausible enough. But council tenants are not
Many Kingsmead residents are worried about crime. Yet even those who conceded
that 'people should get put off the estate for doing burglaries' were wary
of the joint council-police operations. 'The council has set itself up as
a kangaroo court, they are being the judge and the jury...there are innocent
parties, boys getting thrown out of their home because of what their brothers
have been doing.'
Others were forthright opponents of Hackney policy. 'The council is making
these families a scapegoat, and a lot of other councils will do the same.
They should be more interested in putting up facilities for kids than paying
money to evict families. A lot of people on the estate feel the same way.'
Left to rot
The notion of Hackney council as a knight on a white charger seems ludicrous
to tenants who have suffered years of neglect by the town hall. Built in
the 1930s, Kingsmead is described by Hackney council officials as suffering
'multiple economic and social problems'. This means that for years they
have dumped 'problem' families on the estate and left it to rot. Hence its
nickname: Devil's Island.
'There has been no planned maintenance here since Kingsmead was taken over
by Hackney from the Greater London Council', said a spokesman for the tenants'
association. 'It was forgotten, dismal, off the map. People were getting
no respect from authority.' The tenants' association has high hopes of turning
itself into 'an estate management board, with its own local budget and bank
account, because you can't go worse than the council'. Another tenant was
even more blunt: 'Hackney council's got its head up its arse.'
Although they were unimpressed by the council and the police, most of the
Kingsmead residents I spoke to did express concern about crime. Many agreed
that something had to be done:
'The kids who are doing it should go. They are pissing on each other. If
one's got a car they will mash it up - they haven't got any respect for anyone.'
This statement came from a black man in his early twenties whose home had
been broken into - 'they tried to sell my girl's TV to someone I know'. Having
laid his pro-eviction cards on the table, he went on to explain the context
in which juvenile crime has occurred on Kingsmead:
'A few years ago, their elder brothers could get a job. They could say,
do as I do and you'll get something going for yourself. Now there's nothing
they can say. Nobody from on here works. So the teenagers stay here and
try to make money off the estate.'
'They ain't got a job and they're not going to college', said a black teenager,
'just sit about and it causes boredom. I call it the Kingsmead Syndrome'.
An older resident agreed: 'They hang around all day, then all of a sudden
they go "let's do a house". They do it to kill the boredom.' So
how would he feel if someone broke into his home? 'I'd go mad if they did
but I can understand the younger generation. We had the Kingsmead Club,
now there's nothing. At least we could sign on for a bit of money. Nowadays,
between 16 and 18 you don't exist.'
National newspaper editors and television news producers have shown little
interest in Kingsmead through all the years that central government and
Hackney council have been running the estate and its people into the ground.
Now they have all suddenly turned the spotlight on to Kingsmead, only to
project a distorted picture of life there.
In the media's portrayal of Kingsmead today, most of the major social problems
which make residents' lives hell have been pushed into the background, while
the anti-social behaviour of a handful of juveniles has been elevated into
the biggest issue of all. Worse still, in this topsy-turvy version of events,
the authorities responsible for most of the problems facing Kingsmead are
allowed to set themselves up as the solution.
The events in Hackney have shown what 'solution' the authorities can really
offer to economic and social problems today: a law and order drive which
culminates in an assault on civil rights that comes close to a policy of
selective internment without trial, all dressed up in the rhetoric of protecting
the weak. A law and order drive, moreover, led by a Labour council and supported
by the Tories, the police and the liberal press.
If we are not careful Kingsmead Estate, desolate relic of the municipal
past, could provide a policing model for an authoritarian future.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 58, August 1993