Is London Safe?
Last Sunday saw the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attack at Borough Market, and Londoners turned out in force to celebrate life. We don’t do candles and prayers, we raise glasses instead and have a party. We’re used to dealing with disasters, and handle them with grace and even humour (who can forget the shot of the man running across the bridge with his pint?
There’s a lot of rubbish talked about the perceived risk of being in London, notably from the arch-nonsense disseminator Trump, but how real are the dangers?
There were over 700,000 mobile phones snatched last year, so many that the Met no longer regard it as an actionable crime. Knife crime has gone through the roof but mainly in specific communities within the poorest boroughs of London (largely Somali). And it turns out that the reason for acid attacks among youths is to do with legislation; after a massive crackdown on knife crime with increased sentences, kids realised that acids and bleaches carry a GBH charge only, and it’s not illegal to carry them because they were never classed as weapons – that’s changing now.
The real problem lies in the massive reduction of police stations (around forty London stations in the last twelve months) and an over-reliance on technology that simply doesn’t work. Surveillance cameras are failing and facial recognition systems are over 90% inaccurate. Result? My crowded, chaotic neighbourhood, King’s Cross, once the home of hookers and crack dens, has junkies and dealers back on its backstreets.
As a middle-aged white guy I find London police very responsive and civilised, but that’s obviously not everyone’s experience. Extra PCs appeared after our complaints and they herded the addicts away, but they reappear the moment the coast is clear.
Friends from Australia visited this week and asked if it was safe to walk back to the station after dinner. I had to explain that of course it was safe, and that I have a 76 year-old friend who regularly walks or takes the night buses there. Crowded does not equate to dangerous – but crowded tubes at the level of Leicester Square on a Saturday night may shock out-of-towners not used to such delights. Actually what usually happens is that a party atmosphere prevails. Everyone is polite, and there’s a bit of singing/ mucking around.
The sad truth is that many tourists think London is unsafe. Visitors often believe the panic-mongering rubbish they read about evil muslims and murderous girl gangs. The majority of London wards have improved massively in the last few years. On Monday I went to fringe theatre in the Elephant & Castle, formerly an area so dangerous that shop assistants had to be walked home after dark, and found it full of pleasant, well-lit pedestrianised squares and soy-decaf-latte shops. Seemingly overnight it has been transformed from a derelict wasteland to a real neighbourhood.
Terrorism is of course something to be watchful about. I’ve now narrowly missed four such attacks, one in Barcelona, one in King’s Cross on 7/7 when there were three separate bombings in our neighbourhood, one in the nail-bombing of The Admiral Duncan (which I missed by a couple of minutes) and an IRA bombing in Kensington. My parents before me both narrowly missed bombings during the Blitz.
As in any major city, if you do something dumb you can expect to be taken advantage of. London reminds me of Berlin, where street drinking is normal, rough and posh rub along beside each other and a general air of communality is enjoyed. London is not only statistically safe, its people are far friendlier and more helpful than their fearsome reputation ever admits. I don’t think it’s very likely that you’ll be hanging around in a Whitechapel car park at two in the morning with a Somalian street gang, which exempts you from most areas of high risk.
However, since the Brexit negotiations tied up everyone in government things have slipped in terms of policing street crime. This year the stats have changed dramatically – and if they’re not quickly hammered down the streets may well become no-go zones once more.