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Knife crime is about public health, not just bobbies on the beat

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Local government can help address the recent spate of knife crime.

The current frenzy over the youth knife-crime epidemic follows a regrettable, but powerful editorial rule: if it bleeds, it leads.

It is right that the tragic and immensely wasteful loss of young life has raised knife crime to the top of the political agenda, even at a time of heightened turmoil. But, the visceral fear, anxiety and outrage felt by individuals and communities about recent events is trumping sober analysis.

To a certain way of thinking, the media attention is yielding to a historically illiterate misreading of the situation. Writing in The Better Angels of Our Nature, the academic Steven Pinker made the case that humanity is undergoing a long-term triumph in overcoming violence and its causes.

So where does violent crime come from? Well, in the sense that our lives are interdependent with our environments, the probable answer is all around us. It is not an ‘us and them’ issue, but one for everyone.

The artist and activist Akala also pointed out with great statistical robustness on Channel 4 News that knife-crime is a problem with no fixed demography. It is called an ‘outbreak’, but it is not a discrete disease, with an offending microbe we can pinpoint.

Yet it is a public health issue about the environment we create and live in. To connect a child carrying a knife to police officer numbers is therefore akin to connecting a child carrying cigarettes to oncology nurse numbers. By the time it becomes a police problem, the situation is already out of control.

So how do we fix something like? The good practice and actual proof from Scotland in recent years has pointed to a localist, bottom-up approach to a problem.

Local government’s continued role in public health, under siege from health service chiefs, is pivotal. Knife crime emerges from what those who study public health rightly identify as a ­‘complex systems’, which means you cannot just identify a specific problem and fix it.

Is it the condition of housing? The provision of life chances and career advice? Or the loss of youth centres and libraries? As society is more than a sum of its parts, this problem adds up to more than the sum of its causes.

From the Citizens Advice Bureau to the Jobcentre Plus, and the secondary school to the shopping centre, the environment from which crime emerges must be understood to be combatted. And our councils are uniquely placed to take a view and implement overarching strategies of change.

The temptation, as ever, will be to descend into a melee of pointing fingers among contesting local and national actors, without taking responsibility for the situation itself. But blame will not deliver a single answer to the questions raised when a young person leaves home with a knife.

The answers are within our communities, and they are often place-specific. We must give our local authorities the convening power, the means and the mandate to collaborate with the gamut of local partners – including police and crime commissioners, clinical commissioning groups, and academy trusts – to find these answers.

Joe Fyans, head of research, Localis

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