Complaining that Britain is going to the dogs sometimes feels like a national sport, but a major new analysis of violent crime has proved the pessimists wrong.
In fact, this country has experienced the largest drop in violence rates of any European country over the last decade and become a significantly safer place to live.
The UK Peace Index, published for the first time today by the Institute for Economics and Peace, found UK homicides per 100,000 people had fallen from 1.99 in 2003, to one in 2012.
Despite the improvements, there is still a large gap between perception of crime and the reality. Seventeen per cent of people think they will become a victim of violent crime while fewer than four per cent actually experience it.
Broadland in Norfolk came out as Britain’s most peaceful local authority, while Lewisham in south-east London had the highest overall rate of violence. Steve Killelea, founder and chief executive officer of the Institute of Economics and Peace, said: “One of the greatest surprises of doing the UKPI was the huge improvement in peace in the UK.
“First we were suspicious of the figures we were using, so we cross-checked them with a number of other data sources such as the British Crime Survey, hospital admissions for violence and alcohol consumption and alcohol-related crimes, and also compared it to other Western European countries. The UK really is becoming more peaceful.”
Of the 343 local authorities assessed in the index, 278 are more peaceful now than they were in 2003. The fall in murders has been particularly sharp, making the UK homicide rate now roughly equivalent to the Western European average – and at its lowest level since 1978. However, the UK violent crime rate is still significantly higher than the European Union average.
Extreme poverty is the factor found most clearly associated with violence, with police numbers making little difference to how peaceful an area is. UKPI researchers say that tackling poverty and unemployment offers the greatest hope for making areas more peaceful.
Crime and punishment: A snapshot of Britain
Least peaceful: Lewisham, south-east London
With a murder rate running at more than twice the national average, Lewisham in south-east London came out at the bottom of the UK Peace Index.
One court case on Tuesday gave a snapshot of life in the borough, when two drug dealers were sentenced following a raid which uncovered an arsenal of guns, including an M16 assault rifle, as well as more than £40,000 of heroin, cocaine and cannabis.
Weapons crime saw a large increase between 2003 and 2005 but has since declined, although it still remains above the national average. Mahesh Patel, 52, a newsagent, has lived and worked in Lewisham for 30 years. “Only yesterday a customer of mine came in and said, ‘Did you know my son got killed last year?’,” he says. “I didn’t know. He was stabbed to death by two youths.”
Despite this, Mr Patel believes the borough has got safer. He added: “In the beginning it was very rough, but now I think the area has calmed down a lot. Sometimes, I forget to put the locks on my shop at night, but when I go back nothing has been touched.”
Most peaceful: Broadland, Norfolk
Covering a largely rural area to the north and east of Norwich, which is home to the Norfolk Broads, Broadland is predominantly made up of small villages and smart market towns and a few of Norwich’s quieter suburbs.
With a population of about 125,000, the district had only eight violent crimes reported in 2012 and its average overall crime rate for the past decade was 323 offences per 100,000 people, about a third of the national average.
Rachel Leech, 39, who works at Elm Country House in Horsham St Faith, said: “I’ve been here for nearly two years and never heard of a crime. It’s a lovely peaceful village. People are worried about street lighting but that’s about it.”
Inspector Danny Kett, who leads the Broads beat for Norfolk police, said: “We haven’t had a murder in 12 months, and I’m not sure when we had one before that.” And is there a common crime in the area? “A few cases of heating fuel being stolen, or diesel taken from vehicles”.
Most improved: Glasgow, Scotland
Although Glasgow is the least-peaceful place in Scotland, it showed the biggest improvement of any British city. Murder rates have fallen by 39 per cent in four years, while violent crime has reduced by 28 per cent
Paul Docherty, 49, runs the Brazen Head, a Celtic football fans’ watering hole which was once dubbed the city’s “hardest pub”. He says: “This is a busy pub but we don’t get much in the way of violence nowadays. Five years ago we had quite a spate of fights but it has certainly reduced now.
“I think a lot of it has got to do with Rangers not being in the same league anymore. Since they’ve gone down, that’s probably had a big effect on violence in Glasgow, because you don’t have a derby in the same way.”
Getting worse: Guildford, Surrey
Almost a parody of middle England, with its affluent and predominantly white commuter population, Guildford seems an unlikely place to be bucking the downward trend in serious crime. But over the past 10 years, the county town of Surrey, which lies 27 miles south-west of London, has seen its murder rate rise by 88 per cent and public disorder go up 73 per cent.
Paolo Ditale, 40, a manager at the Olivo Ristorante Italiano, has lived in the town for 15 years and notices difference. “The level of crime definitely feels like it’s rising,” he says. “Guildford used to be a very safe town but I don’t think it’s the same. Things like robbery seem to be on the up and there seem to be fewer police.”
Before the population starts fleeing in their BMWs, however, they should note that violent crime in the town is still half that of the national average.
England & Wales
2 Three Rivers
3 South Cambridgeshire
4 East Dorset
8 Mid Sussex
9 East Cambridgeshire
11 Ribble Valley
15 North Kesteven
17 Vale of White Horse
20 West Lindsey
5 Tower Hamlets
6 Hammersmith & Fulham
11 Waltham Forest
12 City of Westminster
17 Barking & Dagenham
1 Orkney Islands
4 Shetland Islands
5 Dumfries & Galloway
1 Glasgow City
2 West Dunbartonshire
4 North Ayrshire