02/09/2011 06:01 BST | Updated 02/11/2011 05:12 GMT

Rebuilding the Community After the Riots

Young people need to be given a stake in society, whether that is through getting on the housing ladder through a shared-equity home

The most compelling description of the emotional deficit that too many young people experience in Britain today was provided by two gang members I met just after the riots. Their first feelings of love, value and identity, they told me, came when they felt part of their gang. It gave them protection, and a sense of kinship and loyalty. No one else offered them a structure or role in society - not their families, not schools, not youth clubs or the wider community. The gang became their proxy family, their shoulder to lean on and gave them a sense of power.

Much has been written since the riots about the decline in familial and community bonds, the isolation many people face within their communities and the extreme individualism which characterises many of the actions of the rioters. The answer for some is that these young people are irredeemable; their actions speak for themselves as criminal acts pure and simple, and only a toughening of adult and state control of their lives will stop this happening in the future. Yesterday Michael Gove seemed to reflect this by bringing back the concept of an underclass, one which is a "vicious, lawless, immoral minority". His answer was to bring back physical punishment in school - to literally enforce the arms of the state by introducing former soldiers to the classroom.

Of course it is right that those who instigated the riots and who took advantage of the chaos to loot shops and destroy livelihoods are appropriately punished, but as Ed Miliband said in his speech to his old Haverstock School, just locking up the perpetrators will not stop this happening again or address the root causes of the problems facing young people in Britain today. Remember "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime".

The lack of support for young people extends way beyond those who end up as gang members - it affects so many of those under 35. If you were born after Mrs Thatcher was first elected, you will be lucky to own your own home by the age of 40. You will have to grow used to job insecurity with little workplace representation when times get tough. Even as a graduate, the likelihood of finding a well-paid job is becoming more remote by the day, making the debt you have amassed to earn the certificate feel like a ball and chain, rather than a liberation. All your money will be spent on keeping a roof over your head and paying the bills. Saving for a pension looks pointless when it will be worth so little in 40 years' time.

Meanwhile, the community anchors which previous generations could fall back on - family, faith and friendships - have been weakened through social change and economic mobility. Young people's economic security is threatened in a way that no other generation since the 1930s has experienced.

Politicians from all parties promised that every generation would have more opportunity, greater personal wealth and the potential for a happier life than the last. We are failing to live up to that promise. The riots were not the sole making of a so-called underclass; young people from a myriad of backgrounds, including many young women, joined in a moment of collective and destructive criminality. We need to think now beyond the prison sentences and community punishment being handed down, to the ways we stop this happening again.

This is not in any way to excuse or justify their actions, but to try to understand the lack of hope many young people feel. We should take our lead from Tariq Jahan, whose dignified appeal to the community following the death of his son helped to bring calm to the area. Empathy may be difficult, but it will be necessary if our society is to find long-lasting solutions.

Blaming the current Government's cuts is a get out clause too. While the Coalition's scythe doesn't help, the roots of the riots were developed not in the last twelve months, but in the last 30 years. That's why we need a long-term consensus across all political parties and civil society about how to revive the promise of opportunity to our young. We should start by acknowledging some central truths which we began to understand in Government.

The first is that what happens in the earliest years of a child's life has the biggest impact on their future life chances. Supporting healthy pregnancies, good parenting, high-quality childcare and dependable incomes leads to more fulfilling adult lives more than ploughing money into prisons and punishment. Results attach not to the amount of money that the state spends, but when, on what and how.

The second is that local intensive programmes with a range of providers working together are more likely to succeed than target-driven national initiatives. For example, the Family Nurse Partnership Programme, the Total Place pilots or the work of charities such as Help on Your Doorstep in Islington have all proven the value of going local.

Third, strengthening civil society and putting communities in charge of finding their own answers to local problems is eminently preferable to Whitehall or the town hall trying to find a legislative solution. In some cases this will mean transferring assets owned by local authorities to communities through land trusts, mutualisation or other models. In others, it will be to innovate with participatory budgeting, community-led commissioning or hyper-local volunteering.

Young people need to be given a stake in society, whether that is through getting on the housing ladder through a shared-equity home; helped by local charities to find a stable job with good pay; or given a role in commissioning the local youth provision, so that the activities on offer better fit with what they value. Where young people turn to gangs, civil society will have to offer alternatives tailored to their needs, not the prescriptions of deadened bureaucracies.

This will require politicians to think about the role of the state differently. We must move from what Geoff Mulgan calls the 'delivery state' to a 'relational state', a clunking phrase indeed, but let's look at what it means. First, the value of relationships developed in the provision of a service is often more important than the process. Second, it means binding individuals to the services provided by giving them greater responsibility for deciding what is provided, by whom and how much it will cost. Third, the provision of services should be located with the body or group of individuals most likely to create long-term relationships, whether that is a charity, local community organisation or a group of neighbours.

In this way, we can start to see that a better answer to the problems faced by young people is the opposite of ramping up state control over their lives. Instead they should be given greater responsibility for what happens to them in their education, in youth provision and over the choices they can make in housing and work. The relationships they develop through greater community engagement can start to ameliorate the absence of support they might otherwise suffer. If role models cannot be provided in the family, let them be found in their community.

The lesson for policy-makers is that civil society - a coalition of residents, churches, tenants associations and local charities - not politicians, policemen or soldiers in the classroom; should be the guardians of the peace. To conclude otherwise will risk condemning our young to a life of insecurity, and with that, more riots.