Wednesday, 10 August 2011

UK Riots: Is 'deprivation' an adequate explanation?

Since the recent riots kicked off, there has been a considerable amount of political opportunism: Ken Livingstone jumped on the troubles as a vehicle for promoting his 2012 Mayoral election campaign; the BNP have been busily promoting the view that the events can be explained by and are a consequence of immigration and racial diversity, and various leftist and socialist types have attempted to attribute the events to “cuts” and “deprivation” in order to attack the current government and to argue for a statist position.

Sadly, people tend to react to events like this in a knee-jerk fashion that is consistent with their own personal prejudices. While the BNP apparently can’t see the white faces of many of the rioters, the deprivation brigade apparently can’t acknowledge that the riots were organised on expensive gadgets that genuinely deprived people wouldn't own. The view promoted by the latter group is difficult to reconcile with the wealth of statistical information that exists on indicators relating to deprivation, and that shall be the topic of this post. 

Indices of Deprivation

The Department of Communities and Local Government produces a measurement of deprivation (for England) at the small area level based on 38 indicators across seven domains (Income Deprivation, Employment Deprivation, Health Deprivation and Disability, Education Skills and Training Deprivation, Barriers to Housing and Services, Living Environment Deprivation, and Crime). Looking at this data at either the Local Authority (LA) or Lower Layer Super Output Area (LSOA) casts doubt on the view that deprivation is a crucial factor in the riots.

Table 1 shows the rank of average LSOA score for those LAs in which there has been rioting. The first thing that must be conceded is that areas like Liverpool and Hackney are at the very top end of most deprived areas, and the rest (excluding Gloucester) are within the top 25%. But, there were no riots in Knowsley (5th), Blackpool (6th), Middlesbrough (8th) or most of the other ranks between 1 and 125 not included in Table 1.

There are various ways to look at this data by LA. Another is to calculate the proportion of LSOAs within an LA that are in the top 10% of most deprived LSOAs in England. This measure provides an idea of the proportion of an LA that is amongst the most deprived in the country. The top five (in descending order of proportion) are Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Manchester, Knowsley, and Kingston upon Hull. Riots failed to break out in three of these.

Should one be concerned that perhaps the detail is being lost at the LA level and feel that looking at each of the 32,482 LSOAs would reveal that it was actually the most deprived small areas that the riots occurred in, a quick look at the data will alleviate that concern. There is not one London LSOA within the top 400 most deprived, many of which are in LAs where there was no trouble, e.g. Blackpool, Burnley, Middlesbrough, Newcastle upon Tyne, Bradford, etc. The most deprived LSOA according to this measure is in Tendring, Essex. 

Those arguing that this is all about deprivation have the difficult task of explaining precisely why it is that deprivation should cause riots in places like London and Manchester but not elsewhere. 


Unemployment appears to be one of the most common deprivation-related factors that is mentioned as a cause. In a previous post I explained that there are many other areas around the country with high levels of unemployment to which trouble did not spread. For example, despite having an unemployment rate of 10.7% compared to Haringey’s 8.9%, it wasn’t all kicking off down in Canterbury. Nor was there trouble in Glasgow (12.4%) or most areas with high rates of unemployment.

It is also instructive to look at unemployment over time within some of the areas affected by the riots. 

Contrary to reactionary alarmism that unemployment would rocket under the current government, it can be seen in Figure 1 that the national rate actually hasn’t increased since the increase that occurred at the end of the previous government. Indeed, the most recent statistical bulletin on unemployment from the Office for National Statistics has the rate at 7.7% for the three months to May 2011. It can also be seen that the unemployment rate in Croydon and Haringey has actually decreased since the last General Election and the unemployment rate in Hackney is less than it was back in 2007. Surely if this was about unemployment, the residents of those areas should have been going ballistic in recent years. Alas, they have not.

Alternative explanations

The way in which these riots started is perhaps the easiest part to explain. There is a history of tension between the police and some elements of the black community. An incident occurred which sparked an angry reaction from that community. It is more difficult to account for the manner in which it spread beyond this to other areas and in particular why it spread to some areas and not others.

Criminal opportunism undoubtedly played a significant role. The initially weak response from the police created the impression that people could loot and vandalise with impunity. Once some tough talk and a little bit of tough action was issued, it has all seemed to have quietened down. Contrary to socialistic idealism, there will always be a criminal element within society which will commit criminal acts if they think they can get away with it. We have a criminal justice system and a police force for this reason.

The deprivation argument is really quite weak. The statistical evidence doesn’t support it, and what we’ve seen and heard in the media coverage doesn’t support it. People organising violence, vandalism, theft, and arson, on smart phones and the internet are not deprived. Only according to the dubious concept of “relative deprivation” can they possibly be said to be deprived. Most people can live peacefully in the knowledge than many others out there are more wealthy, have nicer houses, better and faster cars, and possessions that we can’t afford. That this sort of “deprivation” could be considered a legitimate reason for such criminality perhaps indicates some of the deeper problems with values in society that could encourage people to behave in this way.  

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