US-style 'civic engagement' inspires latest initiative against low-level crime

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Indy Politics

Four years ago, Baltimore had the grim distinction of having the highest rates of violent crime and drug addiction of any big American city.

Baltimore's fortunes were transformed when its Mayor, Martin O'Malley, ordered a blitz on the low-level offending that scarred communities. The city's agencies were given targets for tackling vandalism and drunkenness and were repeatedly judged on them. He cites that as a driving factor behind Baltimore's 26 per cent fall in violent crime since 1999.

Mr O'Malley was a guest of honour yesterday when David Blunkett, the Home Secretary,launched his latest attempt to get to grips with Britain's plague of anti-social behaviour.

Mr Blunkett visited Baltimore earlier this year and liked what he saw. He also travelled to nearby New York, where the former mayor Rudolph Giuliani mounted a similar drive to shed the Big Apple's reputation as America's murder capital.

New York's Red Hook community justice centre, where swift local justice is dispensed, has been the model for a pilot scheme in Liverpool.

Baltimore and New York based their fightback against crime on the philosophy of giving communities a sense of partnership in efforts to reduce antisocial behaviour, which can lead to much more serious offending.

Mr O'Malley said yesterday that Baltimore's population "rallied" after the authorities took tough action against "the tiny minority" of troublemakers. He said: "It's that civic engagement, that tipping point, I think this antisocial behaviour campaign is trying to reach."

The blueprint for Britain, where rates of violent crime are much lower but low-level offending is a similar blight, also smacks of the Government's new-found commitment to "localism".

Ten urban areas with specific problems have been selected for action. In Brighton this entails driving beggars off the seafront, and in Birmingham action will be taken against the noisiest neighbours in its decaying estates. In Liverpool the priority is in rounding up thousands of abandoned cars.

Combating minor crime has been a New Labour theme dating back to Jack Straw's infamous outburst against beggars and "squeegee merchants" eight years ago.

Ministers argue that they have given local authorities and police the tools to tackle the "neighbours from hell", vandals and fly-tippers against whom their constituents constantly inveigh. But they complain that the agencies refuse to use their new powers and Mr Blunkett's anger over their alleged failure to act was evident yesterday.

For their part, councils struggling to keep basic services afloat and police officers coping with rises in violent crime might argue that they have other priorities.

Cynics will suspect that yesterday the Government produced a glitzy, but modestly funded, repackaging of previous initiatives. They may also detect an attempt to shift responsibility for antisocial behaviour away from Whitehall to town hall.

But Labour knows there is a political imperative to act on the problem. Philip Gould, the Prime Minister's pollster, has warned that the widespread feeling of insecurity encountered by voters was eating into the Government's support.

That could have been reflected in a slump in Labour's vote in May's council elections. And the Liberal Democrats campaigned with stunning success on the local Labour council's failure to act on vandalism, graffiti and burnt-out cars in last month's Brent East parliamentary by-election.