A brief history of street violence: It's the economy, stupid

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Marian Fitzgerald is the visiting professor of criminology at the University of Kent and joint author of 'Young People and Street Crime', a report for the Youth Justice Board in 2003

Violent crime accounts for less than a quarter of all recorded crime; both serious violent crime (such as murder, attempted murder and serious wounding) and robbery are subsets of violent crime. The graph opposite tracks the rise of robbery and serious violent crime since the Second World War. About 10 per cent of robberies are crimes against businesses (such as bank hold-ups and petrol station heists, but not, for instance, shoplifting); the remainder are personal robberies, or "street crime", which can range from random attacks on strangers, involving serious violence, to tit-for-tat attempts by school-age children to retrieve stolen property using implied threats.

Most strikingly, the graph illustrates that, from the end of the war to the mid-1960s, robberies of any sort were slightly less common than even the most serious of violent crimes; today there are five times as many robberies committed as serious violent crimes.

The surges in street crime as shown by the graph have triggered at least three well-publicised crackdowns over the last quarter of a century. In 1981 the Metropolitan Police launched Operation Swamp in Lambeth, London. This followed several years of trying to tackle the problem by the use of the 1824 Vagrancy Act (the infamous "Sus" law), which allowed police officers to arrest people on suspicion that they were about to commit an offence. The main targets were black and the most memorable consequence was the Brixton riots.

The number of robberies had quadrupled over the following 13 years when the then-Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, announced a crackdown in 1994, warning that this would disproportionately affect black people in view of their greater involvement in street crime. This provoked a political outcry at the time. Five years later, the Macpherson Inquiry condemned as "institutionally racist" his force's handling of the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence.

After a dip in the mid-1990s, recorded robberies had soared to unprecedented levels by 2000, followed by a rise of more than a quarter in the financial year 2001-2002. This most recent rise was driven mainly by the numbers of young people who had acquired mobile phones, which were then "jacked" by other young people. Once, young people might have been bullied or threatened so as to hand over their bus fares; now parents reported stolen mobiles to the police.

The Prime Minister Tony Blair responded to this rise in 2002 by setting up a Street Crime Initiative under his personal direction, promising that this would have the problem under control within six months. The initiative focused on the 10 police forces with the highest levels of street crime. They were given lots of extra resources but also put under enormous political pressure to deliver.

Predictably, the number of recorded robberies fell. Equally predictably, as the extra resources have run out – meaning forces have had to give attention to other issues – and, with the further rise in ownership of new portable "must-have" items such as the MP3 player, the figures have started to rise again. By 2006-2007, recorded robberies were over 60 per cent higher than when New Labour came to power 10 years previously. So, despite year-on-year fluctuations, the long-term trend in robberies has been relentlessly upwards, while police-led attempts to reverse the tide have conspicuously failed.

The rise in street crime needs to be seen in the context of the economic and social factors which underlie the wider trends in crime since the Second World War. Once, millions of young British men would have worked in manufacturing, eventually to become the breadwinners for their families. With the decline of our manufacturing industries, increasing numbers of the service-industry jobs available are going to their sisters or girlfriends, or are being outsourced abroad; and, insofar as these young men have a stake in the lives of their children, that is all too often taken away from the increasing numbers who split up with their partners and lose custody. While it is difficult to say that a class of alienated young men is directly responsible for the rise of street crime between the 1960s and the end of the 20th century, it is certainly the case that, in recent years, males have become involved in street crime at ever younger ages.

At one level, the long-term rise in crime is a symptom of affluence; and work within the Home Office has shown that violence is particularly likely to rise at times of prosperity, whereas property crime increases more in time of recession. Street crime, though, is a hybrid of the two and it is most prevalent in areas where the "have-nots" have ready access to the "haves", which suggests it may actually rise further as the economic gap between the two widens.