How Scotland got to grips with knife crime – and what it can teach London
Theatre director originally from Archway says hometown can learn from project
18 May, 2018 — By Conrad Landin
Youngsters taking part in The Street – Scotland’s immersive theatre project
YOUTHS “wander the city centre at night armed with knives and heavy leather belts, often high on drink or drugs”, the Independent reported. After “trading insults” online, gangs “head into the city centre, looking for fights”.
The lofty verbiage of this news report might jar, but it’s how much of Britain’s national media has reported London’s recent knife crime epidemic.
Only this isn’t a description of north London in 2018, but of Glasgow in 2003. Back then, Scotland’s largest city was dubbed the murder capital of Europe. Violent deaths were at their highest level for seven years, and the murder rate was almost four times the EU average.
Fifteen years on, Glasgow has been widely cited as a glimmer of hope for inner London – including by Diane Abbott and, reportedly, Sadiq Khan. In the past 10 years the number of homicides in Glasgow has fallen by 47 per cent, and the number of crimes involving a weapon by two-thirds.
Much of this success has been credited to Police Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit. Established in 2005, it takes the novel approach of treating violence as a public health issue. It is run with a degree of independence from the wider police force, and works with schools, hospitals and youth services to break cycles of violence and nip knife crime in the bud.
But the Scottish approach should not be seen as merely a new – even a revolutionary – police strategy. In fact, it couldn’t have happened without a cultural change that goes way beyond the boys in blue.
No one knows this more than Wendy McInally, who leads the RegenFX Youth Trust in South Lanarkshire, whose “diversion programme” reached 8,565 young people in 2015/16. RegenFX’s flagship is an immersive theatre project called The Street – a gritty street scene recreated in an industrial unit in Hamilton.
Here, both the cast and the audience are made up of young people at risk of being sucked into a life of crime and violence.
“We use live consequential learning to highlight the aftermath of poor choices young people are making around their risk-taking behaviour,” Ms McInally says.
“Is it too real for you?” asks the invitation, sent out to targeted groups of young people. “Can you handle brutal reality?”
Tabby Fallace, who moved to Glasgow 18 months ago after growing up in Archway and Kentish Town, can certainly handle it. Now The Street’s theatre director, she leads the cast in rehearsals before they begin an intensive programme of performing stage simulations of their own experiences four times a week.
In spite of the name, Fallace says, “we don’t just take any young people off the street. The people coming to us are people known to the police, or they might be referred by social work, or might be self-referred. They might not be committing crimes, we target young people who are at risk of being disengaged.” She attributes the recent spike in knife crime back in London to “huge cuts to youth services”.
Of course, Highbury is not Hamilton. Islington does not suffer from Strathclyde’s ever-present religious sectarianism. And Police Scotland has never been branded “institutionally racist” by a public inquiry – unlike the Met.
Fallace still passionately believes her home town can learn a lot. She adds: “In Glasgow you have areas of multiple deprivation which are not very mixed – unlike in London, where the very rich and the very poor are often living side by side. But in London there are still many young people living in relative poverty with nowhere to go.”