Crime’s downward path: A promising trend with no room for complacency

Tom Welsh
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IT’S BEEN called the riddle of peacefulness. Many think crime is a growing problem: a 2013 Ipsos Mori study found that 58 per cent didn’t believe it was falling, while 51 per cent thought violent crime was getting worse. Yet Britain, in common with much of the developed world, has enjoyed nearly 20 years of crime sliding.

Yesterday, the ONS released its latest Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW), showing a 10 per cent drop in the estimated number of criminal incidents against households and adults in the year to September 2013. On this measure, crime has now fallen by 20 per cent since 2007-08, a trend that stretches back to 1995. This new peacefulness is notably apparent in the number of violent incidents, now at their lowest level since the CSEW survey began in 1981.

The gap between public perception and criminal reality is not completely ridiculous, of course. With an estimated 8m incidents in the year to September 2013, 1.7m of them violent, the UK hasn’t defeated its criminals. Far from it. According to UN figures, in 2010, there were 137.9 robberies per 100,000 people reported to the police in England and Wales, compared to just 34.5 in Norway and 58.5 in Germany.

And while the CSEW is separate to the apparently massaged figures released by police forces, which recently lost their official accreditation, it does exclude crime against business. In just one example of what this omits, a 2011 report by the Cabinet Office estimated the cost to UK business of cybercrime (notably IP theft) at £9.2bn a year. The CSEW doesn’t give us the full picture, whatever the statistical justification.

But this doesn’t negate the long-term trend, true across much of the West. The bigger riddle is why this is happening. There are all kinds of wild theories: one is that leaded petrol (now banned) once rewired brains to make them more susceptible to violence; the economist Steven Levitt argued that the legalisation of abortion in the US in the 1970s left fewer unwanted babies to grow into delinquants. As theories go, they’re suitably bizarre. But since few agree on what is happening, it’s little surprise the public reacts with disbelief.

The economy probably matters – but not necessarily in the way we expect. There were 11 per cent fewer burglaries in the year to September 2013 than in 2007-08, and the recession didn’t result in the big uptick some feared. But as the economist Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay has argued, if real incomes had risen, it would not necessarily have caused a bigger drop in crime. Rising incomes may suggest people do not need to steal, but also imply greater spending on goods that can be targets for theft. Further, the falling price of steal-able goods like DVD players may have tipped the reward-risk balance too far for would-be thieves.

Technology is also narrowing criminal opportunities – even simple changes to our homes. A 2006 study by the Association of British Insurers found that houses with deadlocks were 58 per cent more likely to experience an attempted burglary than a burglary with entry. There’s been a 56 per cent fall in vehicle thefts since 2002-03 – attributed to better technology. In 2010, an estimated fifth of stolen cars had keys taken in a burglary: joyriding is becoming a thing of the past.

What of the other conundrum? Police spending is falling. As a 2012 report by Policy Exchange found, while the drop in crime between 2001 and 2010 coincided with a rise in police spending of 25 per cent in real terms, total crime also fell by 68 per cent before that spending boom began in 2001. It’s a credit to our police forces’ professionalism that they have overseen a continued decline in crime despite more limited resources. But it’s a further credit that they have continued to embrace new tactics and more hard-headed strategies – like the intensive targeting of crime hotspots, and the recognition of the benefits of localised policing, as pioneered by former New York City police chief Bill Bratton. A 2009 study into the aftermath of the July 2005 terror attacks in London found that increased police visibility in the centre of the capital immediately afterwards saw crime fall significantly.

Britain’s prison population doubled between 1993 and 2012. A recent study by Birmingham academics for Civitas connected tougher prison sentences with falling burglary rates, and it obviously removes criminals from the streets. Yet it isn’t a silver bullet: other countries have seen crime decline with falling incarceration rates.

The most intriguing unknown quantity, however, aside from whether the regentrification of UK urban centres has affected crime levels in cities, is the impact of demographics. Young Brits have become young puritans. People aged 16-24 are less likely to have drunk alcohol in the last week than any other age category. Less than a third had tried cannabis in 2013, compared to nearly half in 2001. And increasing numbers are living with parents – 26 per cent of 20 to 34 year olds in 2013.

These are all just theories, of course. But a promising trend is no cause for complacency. While some may cast the British as cynics for worrying about crime even as it falls, this is no time to hold back against Britain’s criminals.

Tom Welsh is business features editor at City A.M. @TWWelsh