James Duddridge MP: How restorative justice can help tackle the blight of graffiti
James Duddridge is MP for Rochford & Southend East. He will today be introducing a Bill in the House of Commons that would make it compulsory for people caught creating graffiti to clean it up and meet the victim whose property they have vandalised.
Graffiti is a complex problem, but it goes without saying that we need to find a way to get those who create it to realise the impact that their behaviour has if we’re going to get them to change it.
Some may regard graffiti as art, but that’s not the issue here. Even if graffiti was an elaborate mural that every person who saw it thought was a beautiful piece of work – however unlikely that is, given that we all have different tastes – then if it was created without the permission of the property owner then it’s simply an act of vandalism and a form of criminal damage.
The scale of the problem around the country is huge, both in terms of financial cost and social impact.
Financially, cleaning up graffiti costs the UK taxpayer millions of pounds every year. In London, a report by the Greater London Assembly in 2005 put the figure for all London Boroughs at approximately £7 million per year. In my own area, Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, a unitary authority covering 71,000 households, spent £120,000 last year on cleaning up graffiti, and estimates for Birmingham City Council, for example, put the cost at around £1 million per year.
The cost to private industry is also substantial. On the rail network, graffiti is the most common form of vandalism and train companies regularly report £1 million-plus budgets. London Underground spends an average of £2.5 million a year on cleaning off regular graffiti, in addition to £10 million every year to replace glass that is etched with graffiti.
Overall, some estimates place the total cost of graffiti to the British economy at over £1 billion a year.
If we’re spending so much money cleaning up graffiti, and in most places it’s rising every year, then the measures that are currently available for tackling it obviously aren’t working.
But it’s not just the financial cost that makes graffiti such a problem – it also has huge implications for our communities. Graffiti is not just an eye-sore, but also a long-standing reminder of anti-social behaviour that has a profound effect on communities.
If there’s already a situation where you’ve got two parallel universes of young people on the one hand, and the older generations in an area on the other hand, then the gulf is only widened further by the physical reminder of it that graffiti creates.
Every year the charity Environmental Campaigns (more commonly known as ENCAMS), who are publicly backing the Bill, conducts a Local Environmental Quality Survey, looking at 12,000 sites across England. Since 2001, ENCAMS have found that the percentage of sites affected by graffiti has consistently been over 20%, and in the worst affected areas, the average is almost 50%. Across the country, 89% of local authorities identify graffiti as being a problem.
Rudy Giuliani’s ‘broken windows’ theory in New York can translate easily to the situation created by graffiti here in the UK. One piece of graffiti springing up in a neighbourhood can cause the area to spiral into an unpleasant and uncomfortable place to live. A problem of this scale can’t be written off as just a bit of a nuisance. Graffiti genuinely causes people to worry about leaving their own houses out of fear for their personal safety.
Restorative justice is the way to get those responsible to change their behaviour and their long-term attitudes to crime.
The problem is that in terms of restorative schemes, the type of scheme and when it’s used depends on what ad hoc arrangements are in place in each particular local authority area. This Bill would put it onto the statute book that it is compulsory in all areas for individuals caught creating graffiti to undergo a restorative sentence.
So how would this work in practice?
When someone’s caught committing graffiti, they would be issued with a ‘clean-up’ order requiring them to come back and clean up the mess they’ve made. If they don’t accept it the case could go to court, but if they’re found guilty the result would be the same.
Another condition of the ‘clean-up’ order would be a requirement that the perpetrator attends a meeting with the victim of their behaviour, say the homeowner or a representative from the business whose property they had defaced. Of course, the victim may not wish to take part, but in that case they could meet with other victims of graffiti from the local community.
The point is to get the offender to realise the true cost of their behaviour on the community. By having to clear up the mess, they would realise how much effort and cost is involved in tidying up after them.
Over-fastidious health and safety arguments about whether it’s dangerous for the perpetrators to be involved in the clean-up operation mustn’t be allowed to get in the way.
The process of meeting the victims will open up a whole other side to their behaviour that the culprits don’t realise exists. And it will establish a dialogue between the generations that’s sadly lacking in many of our towns and cities.
We need to act now to clean up our streets and tackle those people who are destroying our communities.