Renovation Zones call for penal reform to cut the re-offending that is ruining communities

Paul Marsden 8.11am

On Tuesday, Ken Clarke said that the riots make the case stronger for penal reform, with three-quarters of those aged over 18 taking part in the riots being re-offenders. In his final extract from a revolutionary set of policies, former MP Paul Marsden writes why penal reform must be part of Renovation Zones.

The transformation required in the Renovation Zones must be reflected in our prisons. Criminals serving sentences must appreciate that they are being punished for crimes that they have committed. Ahead of that, however, must be a culture of transforming lives.

Instead of languishing in a cell for up to 23 hours a day, prisoners should be learning and exercising for up to 18 hours a day. All activities should be focused on acquiring new skills and identifying future careers.

The fact is that many criminals in prison will, when released, be returning to the types of areas that are candidates for becoming Renovation Zones. These ex-convicts should become positive role models for these areas rather than sources of aggravation, competition and tension.

Re-offending rates range from 26 per cent to 74 per cent for some prisons and when surveyed, 68 per cent of prisoners said that the single most important factor on returning to a community is having a job.

In order to bring down those re-offending rates rapidly, into single figures if possible, we must strive to have work available for prisoners on their release. Rather than wait six months before becoming eligible for work placements, in a Renovation Zone ex-prisoners would be required to join work programmes on the day of their release.

Simple and dynamic change is needed in the communities worst affected by high crime, high unemployment and extreme deprivation. Renovation Zones would cover the priority areas in need of renewal.

It will call for tough ‘Street Leaders’ who are given the full support of communities and local authorities. Their focus will be  on new skills and work, work, work.

Young people need opportunities geared towards real world skills. They must be given the chance to articulate their views in their own way.

Ex-prisoners must be dovetailed into the RZ work programme to reduce rates of re-offending.

A culture of fresh ideas must dominate and failure or only partial success accepted as part of the process of renewal.

A revived local pride must be engendered and linked to a stronger national pride. Improving the environment should be inherent to RZs so that people appreciate the world in which we live.

It will be difficult, the road will be long but the days of dead-end neighbourhoods punctuated with police sirens and shattered dreams must end. Through radical renovation, we can build buzzing, vibrant, respectful and happy communities.

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Renovation Zones could do for skills and social activity what Enterprise Zones promise for economic activity

Paul Marsden 11.29am

The devil makes work for idle hands, so the saying goes. Keep people busy with productive work and activities and their is less chance of crime and general listlessness.

The term “tradecraft” is usually understood to mean a skill acquired in illegal activity. We should turn it on its head and apply it to productive activities. Unlike other community programmes, ‘Trade Craft’ would be mandatory for people who have been unemployed for six months or more. It would also be linked to benefits.

A policy called ‘Tough Learn’ would be worth 30 per cent of current benefits - a taper relief system that avoids removing benefits entirely, and similar to what the coalition government is proposing in its welfare reforms.

It is important not only to provide short-term activities but rather to design projects relevant to long-term community needs. For example, the community centre is run-down and in need of a replacement or a refurbishment, so local people would be hired to achieve these goals. Priority funding could be derived from National Lottery and local government funds and people would work under the supervision and coaching of qualified tradesmen. Training will be linked to real work that benefits the community. In the process, people could gain qualifications in short amounts of time, and then go on to complete further qualifications. Instead of a year or two years of traditional vocational training, people will be ‘upskilling’ in the space of a few months.

Another idea is to provide enthusiastic and entrepreneurial types with a box of tools to help them set up their business, such as registering it, simple guidance on business plans, basic accounting and other business activities - with no cost to that individual. Failure will be expected but we should accept this and keep encouraging people. Not everyone will become the next Richard Branson but that is not the point.

The first time a young person sells their product or service and receives payment in return will inspire them to put in more hours of hard graft and succeed. It gives them self-confidence and belief in an honest living.

Like other policies discussed in previous posts, these Renovation Zone initiatives could easily link up with the Government’s existing policy of Enterprise Zones. The latter are a good step forward for reviving economic activity. Add in the impact of Renovation Zones and you can revive social activity too.

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Renovation Zones could breathe life back into Britain’s troubled communities

Paul Marsden 11.25am

Renovation Zones (RZs) should be created and piloted in areas with the highest levels of unemployment, criminality and deprivation.

'Problem' estates in towns and cities are not the only places in Britain that are poor, disadvantaged, rundown and crippled by crime.

But they are the right place to start if this country is seriously to tackle the problem of an ingrained ‘underclass’.

Some people recoil from any kind of finger pointing. They chart complex causes and overwhelm us with the alleged impossibility of the task in front of us. Some demand great swathes of public money to spend on grand projects. Some will seek to spreak the blame across society and target bankers, MPs and the media. Equally, some will point out the unfairness inherent in stop-and-search tactics towards minority populations. Some people urge longer prison sentences and the removal of benefits and housing from looters and rioters. Some urge building youth clubs with pool tables. Some call for corporal punishment.

Instead of hyperventilating about causes and consequences and the same old policy prescriptions, we need quick, decisive, smart intervention to make a difference.

Renovation Zones (RZs) should be created and piloted in areas with the highest levels of unemployment, criminality and deprivation. There is no perfect prescription, so these RZs will need to adapt and evolve. These are the values that must underpin the RZs:

  1. To instil lifelong learning throughout the community.
  2. To keep working age people in work.
  3. To keep young people busy with productive activities and new skills.
  4. To organise projects to look after vulnerable people.
  5. To reudce community carbon emissions and enhance the local environment of landscape, property and streets.
  6. To instil pride and belonging in the local community, British values, history and traditions.

Local communities must discover their own leaders and find their own solutions. With all due respect to hard-working councillors, police officers and social workers, top down control won’t work. Responsibility must be owned and practised by the community itself. A cultural shift is required.

What matters must be what works. There is no national solution underpinning the idea of Renovation Zones. Here are just a few ideas about how they can function to be a positive driver of change.

  • Social Media: Publicise and recognise good work through social media outlets. Empower teams of ‘Street Leaders’ using Twitter or instant messaging services to communicate events and projects, seek new ideas and discover proven methods.
  • Loyalty schemes: These could be sponsored by local businesses. Loyalty schemes can be created cost effectively using QR codes or barcodes rather than physical loyalty cards. Codes could be held on smartphones and allow the collecting of loyalty points for attending events such as parenting classes or renovation projects. These points could be traded for discounts in local shops.
  • Micro-learning: Renovation Zones could be a locus of flexible and innovative learning for people turned off by traditional methods. Short courses and projects should be recognised with certificates and diplomas, according to a national standard.  It is preferable for a young person to attend one day or a few hours of learning, for instance creating a website, which can go towards larger qualifications, rather than setting the bar too high and achieving nothing at all.

Given the economic climate, the RZs cannot incur much additional funding. They must be a cost neutral venture. It has to be recognised that throwing more money at problems is not a panacea and misses the point that real change only occurs when people want it to.

The creation and management of RZs would be the task of ‘Street Leaders’. They could work solo, in partnership with other Street Leaders or alongside local authorities. It would be up to them to establish the best solutions, decide timescales and set budgets.

It is an ambitious idea but if Britain is to repair its Two Nations then ambition is what is required. As a starting point, RZs could be rolled out in the shadow of an existing Government policy: Enterprise Zones.

The possible synergies are beneficial and varied. A new comunity centre could be developed in a disused shop thanks to the quick bypassing of red tape. A Micro-Enterprise Project might secure money to fit super-fast broadband services to permit free Wi-Fi for a local street. Generous tax breaks might permit local building companies to take on young trainees and apprentices, who would assist in building the new community centre. This centre’s address could be used as a registered address for young entrepeneurs starting new businesses. It even could become a local business centre, fostering enterprise and offering training and development.

The opportunities are endless. All that is needed is the courage to try.

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