A tale of two cities: Violence reduction in Glasgow and London

14 Oct 2021

By Luke Billingham

Among those working to reduce violence in England and Wales, the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (SVRU) has been hailed as an inspiration and a guide (see Home Office 2020: 7-8).

While the SVRU focused much of its activity on Glasgow – once described as the “murder capital of Europe” – consternation about violent crime south of the border is focused with particular intensity on London.

The similarities and differences between these two cities have thus become a matter of no small significance for those interested in the nature, causes and reduction of violence. With its own Violence Reduction Unit established since 2018, to what extent can or should London follow ideas and practices adopted in Glasgow?

When it comes to violence, place matters: as Barry Goldson has put it, ‘spatialised socio-economic conditions are key’ (Goldson 2011: 11). Anyone interested in violence has to consider the complex interplay of homes, streets, neighbourhoods, and towns. So what are the idiosyncrasies of these two great cities, and why are these relevant to efforts at violence reduction?

Rivers and railways, politics and people

The similarities between Glasgow and London are plentiful. Both owe much to their respective rivers: the Clyde in Glasgow, the Thames in London. Aided by these geographical arteries, they share a rich industrial heritage, but are now grappling with the turbulence of post-industrial change. They both have underground rail systems which are over a century old, founded within a decade of one another, the first and third in the world. Both have notorious “East Ends” and played a crucial role in Britain’s imperialism (see e.g. Lester 2006; MacKenzie 2017). Both have a history of mixed income communities, with more and less affluent living ‘chic by jowl’ - to borrow Jock Young’s memorable phrase (Young 1999: 9). English is spoken as a first language in both, but second languages are increasingly diverse, and in each city can be heard a wide range of accents, dialects and vernaculars (see e.g. Jivraj 2012; Kelly & Ashe 2014). And both have an entrenched, complicated problem with interpersonal physical violence (see e.g. Bloom 2010; Fraser 2015).

Look at the two cities from different angles, however, and the contrasts are marked. Glasgow is a city of 1.7 million people, made up of 23 council wards, and is represented by seven Westminster MPs, alongside 15 MSPs. It has one Local Authority, and one postcode area: G. London has a population of 9 million, 32 Local Authorities, 625 council wards, 73 MPs, and 22 postcode areas – its magnitude and its political complexity has earned it the label of an ‘ungovernable city’ (Travers 2003). Their relationships with UK Government differ substantially. London plays host to the UK Parliament and its proximity leads to a centrality to public life, despite some independent authority via its mayoralty. Glasgow is primarily governed by its City Council and from Holyrood – Westminster seeming more distant, both politically and culturally.

Though both cities are heterogenous and unequal, their diversity and inequality are on different scales. London has been described as ‘possibly the most ethnically diverse conurbation on the planet’ (Sturgis et al 2014: 1286), and it also endures a degree of wealth disparity which is unmatched across Western Europe, let alone the UK (see Atkinson 2021). Though both cities are inseparably tied to the history of British colonialism, they each have their own particular relationship with Empire, racialisation, and racism (see e.g. Lester 2006; MacKenzie 2017). The relationship between the city’s police force and its communities, for instance, is more prominently marked by racial tension in London than in Glasgow (see e.g. Lea 2000; Holdaway & O’Neill 2006; Rowe 2007).

Though they share a historical reputation for crime, the patterning of crime rates in the two cities diverge in many ways: Glasgow has long association with youthful street gangs and has been affected by a particularly acute struggle with alcohol and drugs (see e.g. Walsh et al 2010), for example, whilst London is a primary node of “organised” crime – both of the street-based, visible kind, and of the more clandestine, “white collar”, financial kind (see e.g. Edwards & Prins 2014; cf. Hobbs 2013: 191 on the ‘chaotic interactional orders’ of so-called “organised” crime).

Despite many parallels, then, London and Glasgow’s differences arguably outweigh their similarities. For the reasons outlined above – among others – London has been described as an “Alpha City”, more comparable with New York or Tokyo than with any other UK city (Atkinson 2021).

A tale of two Violence Reduction Units (VRUs)

The Scottish VRU (based primarily in Glasgow) and the London VRU thus face very different kinds of complex challenges when working to reduce rates of interpersonal violence in these two cities.

The Scottish VRU began this work in 2005, as a small team in the then Strathclyde Police operating at some distance from electoral politics. The London VRU – officially named The Mayor of London’s Violence Reduction Unit – started over a decade later, in 2018, to immediate public fanfare and scrutiny, and has lived almost half its life under pandemic conditions. The former has been heralded as a remarkable success, the latter is bedding in.

Both VRUs adopt a range of positions in the course of their work: conveners, galvanisers, commissioners, doers, brokers, social entrepreneurs, innovators, campaigners, and figureheads.

The two agencies have ostensibly the same agenda, to bring about a reduction in violence through a public health approach, but are embedded within very different political and institutional worlds. When casting their gaze over Glasgow and London, they are looking at two profoundly different places. They each navigate wide-ranging but distinct influences and constraints on their respective activities.

In Glasgow, London, and many other cities, too many communities are blighted by violent interpersonal harm. If this is to be addressed, we need to better understand not just the ‘adverse social conditions which predictably breed violence’ (Currie 2016: 89), but the ways that place-based approaches can best be designed and implemented.

In undertaking this task through the course of the PHYVR project, we aim to achieve twin goals: to develop new academic insights into the worlds of possibility surrounding any violence reduction effort, and to produce research which can practically assist those engaged in this work “on the ground”.


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