I cannot remember the first time I heard the phrase that London is made up of a series of villages. Like most of us Londoners, I reckoned it was something of a cliché at that time, but I must confess that in the year that I have represented the wonderfully diverse Cities of London and Westminster constituency in parliament, I have finally realised that it is true. For example, there are no fewer than thirty active residents’ associations scattered within the five square miles that make up this historic seat. I try and play an active part in each and every one of these associations when parliamentary business allows. I am convinced that one of the great charms of this part of central London is the fact that so many of its residents do care deeply about the neighbourhoods in which they live and the frenetic activity of many residents’ associations play an important role in ensuring that by and large we enjoy a high quality of urban life.
I know, however, that the fear of crime has risen rapidly in recent months and years. I led a parliamentary debate at the beginning of the year on Metropolitan Police resourcing and along with other central London MPs (of all political persuasions) we have tried to raise the consciousness of this issue. My experience is that the Met are helpful and considerate but there is an overwhelming desire from residents that they should be a considerably more visible presence during both the day and night. Small areas and sometimes even individual roads in Belgravia can suddenly experience an explosion in anti-social behaviour by the increased numbers of passers-by.
You will appreciate that controlling street crime is not easy. The root of the problem is in society as a whole, but I am increasingly concerned about the lack of respect shown to local people and their property.
I speak regularly with senior police officers in Belgravia and Westminster and they argue that one of the main problems has been the retention of more experienced police officers. Typically, central London is an attractive place for police officers at the beginning of their careers to come and live and work, but housing is so expensive that all too often mid-ranking officers with five or so years experience decide to move out of London. In view of their excellent experience in the ‘big smoke’ such officers are naturally highly attractive to provincial constabularies.
I am keen to ensure that the City of Westminster and other central London local authorities have more discretion about how they utilise the scarce available, affordable housing in the area. All too often local authority and other social housing is earmarked for people without any connection with or commitment to the area in my view, we need to give priority to key workers (both in the public and private sector, which would include shopkeepers, traders and craftsmen who are the very social glue of our community).
Only in that way can we help to reverse the tide of anti-social behaviour and keep alive the essence of London as a series of villages with a high quality of life within each neighbourhood.