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Local authoritarians

Hackney council's ground-breaking policy of taking out injunctions against burglary suspects on the
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 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.

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 immediately.

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'.

'A palaver'

'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 government.

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 council.

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.

Guilty genes?

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, that's bad".'

Kangaroo court

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 so gullible.

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.'

Some solution

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

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