A decade on from the summer riots

Jo Stephenson
Tuesday, July 27, 2021

It is 10 years since England was rocked by rioting and looting that spread from London to other cities. Experts, charities and young people explore whether lessons were learned and if it could happen again.

Mentors from Croydon-based charity Lives Not Knives work with vulnerable young people who face multiple challenges against a volatile backdrop of rising knife crime
Mentors from Croydon-based charity Lives Not Knives work with vulnerable young people who face multiple challenges against a volatile backdrop of rising knife crime

By Tim Bateman, reader in youth justice at the University of Bedfordshire and chair of the National Association for Youth Justice

August 2011’s weather was unseasonably chilly with below average sunshine for the time of year. But the four-day period from the first weekend of the month was anything but cool.

Rioting began in Tottenham in London on the evening of Saturday 6 August following a protest about the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan by police two days earlier. Disorder spread over the course of the evening to other London boroughs and continued across the capital on Sunday.

On Monday, rioting broadened to encompass areas including Birmingham, Bristol, Nottingham and Liverpool. Tuesday 9 August saw other towns and cities affected, including Reading, Wolverhampton and Manchester.

Uneasy calm

By the time heavy rainfall across the country brought an uneasy calm, an estimated 15,000 people – most of them under 24 – had actively participated in the riots. Five members of the public had died and more than 5,000 crimes had been recorded, including 1,860 incidents of arson and damage and 1,649 burglaries.

The cost of damage in London alone was calculated to be £200-300m. Twelve months later, more than 2,138 defendants had been sentenced for their role in the events, including 515 young adults aged 18 to 20 and 628 children. More than one in three of the under-18s received a custodial sentence.

David Cameron, then Prime Minister, described the events as “sickening...criminality, pure and simple”.

He, and other government ministers, explicitly linked this criminality to gangs but were later forced to concede the role of gangs had been overstated.

However, this did not hinder the publication of a hastily compiled cross-government report on “ending gang and youth violence” that November.

A parallel, and slightly less knee-jerk, response saw the establishment of an Independent Riots, Communities and Victims Panel which published reports in November 2011 and March the following year.

The punchline of the Ending Gang and Youth Violence report was that the origin of youth gangs was 120,000 “troubled families” – firmly locating the roots of the riots in the individual failings of young participants and their families.

The riots panel reports had a refreshingly broader focus, acknowledging the disturbances had no one single cause. The final report contained a rather scatter-gun array of more than 60 recommendations to address the range of causal factors identified.

A study by The Guardian newspaper and London School of Economics also found involvement in the rioting was triggered by a variety of motivations.

While these included opportunism – the chance to get stuff for free – a more significant influence was “widespread anger and frustration at people’s everyday treatment at the hands of police”.

Participants were disproportionately drawn from disadvantaged communities. For example, 59 per cent were unemployed. Of those prosecuted for riot-related offences, 64 per cent came from the poorest fifth of areas and just three per cent from the richest fifth.

Responding to the evidence, the government’s most sustained initiative was the Troubled Families Programme which focused on “turning around” the 120,000 aforementioned households.

In 2015, government asserted this aim had been met for 116,654 of the 117,000 families identified. But a subsequent evaluation was unable to find evidence of significant impact.

This did not stop the expansion of the programme to reach 450,000 families by 2020.

The government’s most recent report claims “successful” interventions with 350,000 families had been achieved by April 2020.

But the initial assumption this would be a panacea for the gang problem – and reduce the risk of future rioting – seems to have been quietly forgotten.

A report by the Children’s Commissioner for England published in 2021 warns the threat of gang exploitation shows no sign of abating.

Lack of trust

The government’s response to the riots also acknowledged, in passing, that a lack of trust in some communities towards the police was “of great importance” but simultaneously argued stop-and-search tactics were a key mechanism for addressing knife crime.

Use of stop and search has since declined substantially although is starting to creep up again with black people continuing to be disproportionately affected. The rate of stop and search for this group fell from 115 to 30 per 1,000 between 2010/11 and 2017/18, but has since grown sharply to 54 per 1,000.

The Black Lives Matter protests are testimony to the continued concerns of large sections of the population over the discriminatory nature of policing.

Has enough been done to alleviate the risk of further riots in the foreseeable future?

A decade ago, the government cast the 2011 disorder as “unprecedented” but this was, at best, misleading.

At the time, a study by the University of Bedfordshire identified 38 acts of riot between 1958 and 2010 while my own research drew attention to substantial parallels between 2011 and the Brixton riots of 1981.

Other researchers have made a compelling case linking economic cutbacks and various forms of social disorder, including rioting.

The coincidence between the timing of the 2011 events and the impact of the austerity measures introduced in the wake of the 2008 financial crash is hard to ignore.

A recent appraisal by the UN found local authorities in the UK have cut preventative services with resources focused on crisis intervention.

Fiscal policy has impacted disproportionately on children so that by 2020/21, 41 per cent of under-18s will be in poverty, a rise of 10 per cent over the decade.

A survey by UK Youth, published last year, found a staggering 88 per cent of youth organisations were likely to reduce service provision as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic with almost one third anticipating staff redundancies and 17 per cent reporting likely permanent closure.

The government has hinted that further cutbacks will be necessary to balance the books.

In this context, the prospect that recent disturbances in Bristol and Swansea are straws in the wind for further episodes of rioting cannot be ruled out.


  • 15,000 people actively participated

  • 5 people died

  • 5,000 plus crimes were recorded

  • £200–300m estimated cost of damage in London alone

  • 2,138 people were sentenced including 515 young adults and 628 children

Sources: Riots, Communities and Victims Panel; The Guardian and LSE; Ministry of Justice

Pandemic has made life harder for young people

By Tyrell, 21, youth work advocate and ambassador and chair of the Hope Collective Management Group, led by UK Youth

One of my main concerns at the moment is the lack of hope. I don’t think the people who make up our different communities are empowered and supported to achieve the futures they want and many are unhappy. We cannot mobilise as a society with an unhappy workforce.

Covid-19 has had irreversible effects on my life and the lives of people around me. Not only has it crippled a lot of small, grassroots businesses, it has had a significant impact on the mental health of young people.

The lack of available support services and a lack of advice on how to cope with our current unprecedented circumstances, has resulted in many dealing with issues in their own way – perhaps not consistent with professional advice.

My tolerance of others is much lower than it was before entering lockdown. I found this extended period where I was forced to isolate myself away from human interaction and could choose who I interacted with and when has not prepared me for lockdown easing and the reality of life, where I have to interact with others wherever and whenever.

One of the biggest issues facing young people is we do not know where to go for support if and when we want it. The biggest thing the government could do to improve our lives would be to open a centralised support system. Young people could simply phone up and get relevant advice and support on anything from housing and career prospects to mental health and relationships.

Young people face many different problems. But – speaking from experience – the right role model can help a young person navigate through life.

However, good intentions can only go so far. In a world where lives are lost on the streets to knife crime every single day, then helping young people move away from those lifestyles is a matter of urgency. Offering false hope or failing to deliver on promises can reduce the likelihood of a young person engaging with youth services again.

Young people are drained and in need of a good charge. Youth workers like me are the portable chargers. So we too have to make sure we are charged fully before we leave the house.

Project constantly adapts to meet young people’s needs

In one of the most serious incidents of the 2011 riots, Birmingham gang members shot at a police helicopter after setting a pub alight with petrol bombs.

Matt Ford, now drop-in co-ordinator at All Saints Youth Project, remembers it well as he was supporting a young person whose family member was involved in the shooting. Taking a drama-based approach, the organisation he was working for at the time focused on gang culture and gun crime, helping young offenders transition back into the community.

Today, criminal exploitation remains an issue, along with mental health challenges and social inequality. “A lot of young people we work with come from quite vulnerable backgrounds, with fractured home lives, they live in poverty, and they’ve had to spend a lot of time in these environments during the pandemic,” says Ford.

He believes there is no reason why the rioting seen in 2011 could not happen again. “There’s so many underlying social and economic issues that to say something like this won’t happen again is being truly naïve,” he says. “I think it will.”

One of the biggest contributing issues is a sense of injustice around social inequalities. “The disconnect between police and the communities they serve heightens things,” he continues. “And it’s just something that continues to snowball. How can we tell a young person from a deprived area to keep their head down and do this and do that, when the people they see with money or influence in their community are criminals?”

All Saints is constantly adapting the work it does to better meet the needs of the young people it works with, including providing after-school open access, doing outreach work and running sessions for young people with additional needs. The organisation also offers one-to-one counselling sessions, family support and individual projects such as Techno. This brings young and older members of the community together with young participants helping older people engage with technology. While the pandemic accelerated the organisation’s use of digital media, with a lot of support brought online, there was already work under way.

“A lot of our young people are sharing and commenting on a broad range of social issues, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, sexism, issues of misogyny, gender, and identity,” says Ford. “They feel there is more of a platform for them to voice opinions.” However, social media can become an “echo chamber” and some opinions need to be challenged. “It’s good they’ve got a platform but it is equally important youth workers can engage with them via that medium to make sure we’re having a constructive conversation.”


Anti-knife crime message in schools

Eliza Rebeiro founded Croydon-based Lives Not Knives in 2007 when she was just 14, after a friend was stabbed and put on life support.

She remembers the 2011 riots clearly. “My house was close to Reeves [a furniture store burned down by rioters] and I remember the owner being distraught about what happened,” she says. “I also remember some of my friends being sent to jail – a handful of people out of the hundreds that were rioting.”

While some rioters were “violent and horrible and knew what they were doing”, others, often younger people, may have jumped on the bandwagon and made mistakes, she says.

The young people Lives Not Knives works with face challenges from birth. “They tick all the boxes, like coming from a single parent family, with a low income, and there’s trauma in the family, abuse, or drugs or alcohol,” says Rebeiro. Post-pandemic, domestic abuse is an increasing issue for young people with more disclosing abuse than before, she adds.

“I struggle with the fact we wait for these young people to act out in class or to do something wrong, before any support is given,” she says. “We should be working with them from a very young age, making sure they’re aware of their emotions, the trauma they’ve gone through and understand it better.”

Lives Not Knives has been funded by the Youth Endowment Fund to work across 10 Croydon primary and secondary schools with young people in years 5 to 9. A teachers’ resource pack includes videos giving different perspectives on knife crime, such as that of a mother whose son is now in prison for murder.

The charity also works one-to-one with 20 young people identified as particularly vulnerable in each school. “It could be that their older brother, dad or older siblings are involved in gangs or are in jail,” says Rebeiro. “It could be the area they live in, something they’ve witnessed that’s traumatised them, because they previously bought a knife into school, or because they’re being violent or bullying.”

Mentors aged 18 to 25 come from the same backgrounds as the young people they work with. The charity also works with young people in the community, including holiday clubs and drop-in sessions.

The current climate is volatile, with knife crime reaching an all-time high in the UK in 2019 – 49 per cent higher than in 2011. Lives Not Knives’ website links this increase to public service cuts, including 20,000 fewer police than in 2010. “Sixteen teenagers have been killed this year so far,” says Rebeiro.

Enabling young people to tell their story

Bristol-based Creative Youth Network works with 9,500 young people every year, aiming to help unlock their potential. The relationship between young person and youth worker is key, says chief executive Sandy Hore-Ruthven. The organisation runs open-access sessions for all while small group work targets specific demographics, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people, and there is one-to-one support for the most vulnerable.

“Bristol is quite a wealthy city but there are pockets of poverty where young people are getting left further behind,” says Hore-Ruthven. “We anticipate a potential doubling of youth unemployment in this region.”

The challenges facing young people are more complex than they used to be. “It’s family, mental health, struggling at school, being in and out of care or on the edge of criminal exploitation – a huge number of issues,” he says.

In response, the organisation is focusing more of its resources on the most disadvantaged, with more one-to-one and small group work. “We filled the gaps in and around Bristol that social services and the health service left behind as they retreated due to funding cuts,” says Hore-Ruthven. Staff trained in specialisms such as mental health and substance abuse are embedded within wider programmes, making access easier for young people.

In Bristol, young people are campaigning on various issues, ranging from local concerns to climate change and Black Lives Matter. Not all are as articulate as the climate protesters and this can lead to frustration, says Hore-Ruthven. “At the other end of the scale there is a group, particularly white working class, who just want better services and to feel they can participate more in society,” he says. “They don’t wave banners and use hashtags but there’s an underlying need to be heard.”

Creative Youth Network aims to give these young people a voice through programmes such as graffiti art, making films or putting on a show. “We get them to tell their story and to talk about the issues that are important to them,” says Hore-Ruthven.

In March this year, a peaceful “Kill the Bill” demonstration in Bristol over plans to give the police new powers to curb protests ended in violence. Is this a sign the 2011 riots could happen again? “The ingredients are there,” says Hore-Ruthven. “Lack of investment, a sense of hopelessness, a pandemic which has made things worse for everybody, and increased division. A lot of young people, particularly black young people, still say they feel targeted by the police, and that could be a trigger.”

We need more support with mental health

By Clayton, 18, who is supported by Creative Youth Network

As young people, we face stereotypes every single day. We’re put in boxes we don’t belong in and everyone tells us who we should be, what we should do. Youth club is one of the only places I feel I can be myself.

The last year has been tough. I worry about school, what to do next in life, moving away. I’m scared to fail. I messed up my A-levels and that’s caused so much anger and disappointment. I’m trying to process those emotions and understand that not everyone is on the same path – and that’s okay.

The pandemic meant I was put on furlough from my hospitality job. It was awful not knowing when I was going to work again and being paid so little. Now we’re back, there are so many new rules. I’m being told exactly what to do again, just like in school and at home.

Many people, including professionals, take one look at me and assume I won’t want help with my mental health, my feelings and emotions. But what I’ve learned is talking does help. Since I’ve been in therapy, friends and family tell me I’m a new person.

I’d like to see the government support young people more. We have a mental health crisis that’s been made so much worse by the pandemic. We need more funding for services for children and young people. We are the future. Listen to us and treat us with the respect we deserve.

We need professionals to listen

By Kate*, 18, who is supported by Creative Youth Network

We’re supposed to be excited about the future while we’re young, right? Then why is it so difficult for so many of us? I have my whole life ahead of me but I’m so afraid of making the wrong choices and messing up my future.

I worry all the time about money. I worked in a shop throughout the pandemic and I’m still struggling. People said we were heroes but I was scared every single day, worrying I would get Covid and put the people I love in danger.

As a young carer, I’ve got a group I normally go to every week. This is my safe space, where I go to take a breath from my responsibilities. It moved online really quickly but it wasn’t the same. I was going to school online and I couldn’t face this being online too.

All this has taken its toll on me. I’m lucky I have professionals who help me now but in the past I haven’t got the support I needed. We need professionals to listen to us. I know what I need and I asked for it – one-to-one support, not just a residential once a year. I now have a wellbeing practitioner and that’s so much better.

I’ve found healthcare professionals judge me based on how young I am and how I look. I’ve been caring for my dad since I was 12; I know what I’m doing. Once my dad was in pain and when I phoned the ambulance they wouldn’t come out until I called my nan. When I go to hospital appointments with my dad, medical professionals sometimes ask me to leave the room. I’m the one who cares for him and they rarely talk to me.

In the pandemic, I had to go to the shops during the hour for NHS workers and carers. They looked at us and said my dad looked all right in his wheelchair and that I could be anyone. They wouldn’t let us in despite my carers ID card. It was the same when I got my vaccine. I got asked so many questions.

What I’d really like professionals to know is: not everyone has a bath. Teachers, social workers, friends say: “Go and relax – have a bath.” I don’t have a bath, I only have a shower. I can’t just go out and do things with mates or family. I have a dad to care for. People assume I don’t have responsibilities because I’m young.

The most useful thing the government could do is to put up the minimum wage for young people. You can’t survive on £4.62/hour. I see people every day who are stuck in poverty. It all starts when you’re young.

*Name changed


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