As the train pulled into Leeds, I was reminded of a painting. One of LS Lowry's subdued landscapes, stick figures walking between factory buildings, an orchard of smokestacks disappearing in the horizon. Today, those chimneys are gone or dormant, but the city still looks very much like a northern industrial town, red brick houses on rolling hills, romantic and rough-edged at the same time.
First impressions aside, this social geography of Leeds is part and parcel of what I was there to investigate: the city's current problem with burglary.
Some context: as a calculation made from UK police data shows, the West Yorkshire Police has the highest rate of burglaries per capita of any large police force in the UK. For the three years that insurance site MoneySupermarket has been publishing its list of the UK's burglary hotspots, Leeds has always had at least one postcode in the top 20. The city was also found by the Inspectorate of Constabulary, an independent body, to have the third highest burglary rate nationwide in a detailed 2011 report.
In a section on "challenging circumstances", the report states that "mobile populations can provide easier targets for burglars" and that above average levels of poor privately rented housing stock makes homes more vulnerable, and that the burglars are propped up by "a network and culture that allows for the easy disposal of stolen goods".
The "mobile populations" in question are Leeds' students, of which there are a huge number. Taken together, the University of Leeds and Leeds Beckett have over 60,000 of them; Leeds City College has another 57,000, many in the 14 to 18 age bracket, while a handful of small institutions like Leeds Trinity and Leeds College of Art have numbers in the low thousands.
All in all, the students of Leeds would make up a midsize town on their own, and understandably play a big part in shaping the cultural landscape of the city. Unfortunately, students also tend to attract property crime for a variety of reasons. Jonny Foster, Community Officer at Leeds University Union, believes the combination of high value goods and a lax attitude is partly to blame.
"I think student houses seem such an easy target," he said when we met on campus. "Every single student has a laptop, probably a smartphone, maybe an iPad. All of these gadgets might be worth more than £2,000 per student, and then these students are living in fairly decrepit houses, with either poor locks or poorly fitted windows. On top of that, students can be a bit lazy, a bit forgetful… you might be thinking, 'Oh shit, have I locked the front door? I can't be arsed to get out of bed to check.' Whereas, if you had a family, you'd do that. That combination of factors leaves students very susceptible to being burgled, and the burglars know that."
The laziness of students might be open to interpretation, but decrepit housing is not. As far back as 1985, following changes to private rental legislation, Leeds University Union undertook a study of private rented accommodation and found that while student landlords were benefitting from rents set well above market levels, there was little evidence that much of the profits were being reinvested in upgrading the properties. Cold, damp, faulty wiring and broken fixtures were widespread, and the study (titled "Reinvestment or Ruin") wasn't shy about levelling charges of exploitation.
To get a sense of what the student housing situation looks like today, I walked around the Hyde Park area, home to one in every four students at the University of Leeds.
Despite its high student population, Hyde Park gives the impression of being a down-at-heel neighbourhood. Rows of narrow terraces nestle shoulder-to-shoulder, there's house party debris in the streets and scrawls of graffiti on walls.
Hyde Park resident Tom Wells, who was enjoying the sun on his front porch, told me he'd experienced a burglary in the area. "A couple of years ago I was a second year at uni and living on [a nearby street]," he said. "We all went out one night and a group of guys kicked in the back door to the kitchen. No one [nearby] did a thing – no one called the police or anything. It wasn't until we got back at 4 in the morning we realised we'd been robbed. We lost laptops, phones, stuff like that. It was all insured, but still, it's not a nice feeling when someone comes into your house like that."
The two guys in the house adjacent to Tom's said they haven't been robbed, but someone did throw glass bottles at their windows not long ago. One door again and another student told me that some valuables were stolen from her house by a contractor hired by the letting agent.
All of them seemed matter of fact about the presence of low level crime, but certainly not like they were living in a climate of fear. A few doors further up the same street, Tony, an older man who's lived in the area for 30 years, came to the door in a shirt, jeans and braces. Crime now, he told me, is nothing like it was in the 90s:
"I've never seen anything like it – it was a crime wave. They were brazenly wandering around, kicking in doors. If you called the police they'd label you a 'grassing bastard' – but I did call if I saw the young thieves hanging around. I had my windows smashed three times on account of that."
Cross-referenced with official figures, Tony's longer term perspective was accurate. Across the country – and by almost all measures – crime has been falling steadily since a peak in the late-90s, although there's no definitive explanation as to why. To try to understand how the situation in Leeds today fits into this larger trend, I met with Colin Webster, professor of criminology at Leeds Beckett.
"What comes out of the British crime survey is that burglary has massively declined since the mid-90s," he said. "But the tail end of that is that it's even more striking when there are these remaining hotspots in the face of decline. So, to an extent, while burglary has become less common, it's become even more concentrated."
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A decrease in heroin and crack cocaine use is one factor in the reduction of crime, and the increase of cyber crimes such as credit card fraud has also affected patterns of criminal activity. But of the property crime that still remains, Webster was at pains to stress that certain groups bore the brunt.
"I think your readers need to get into their heads that burglary is something that happens primarily to poor people and people in poor areas," he said. "Because the myth is that it's something that's randomly distributed and anyone can be a victim. But in many cases it's highly unlikely."
In many ways, students are the visible face of a bigger problem. It's easy to construct a narrative of wealthy, gadget-toting layabouts being ripped off by local chancers, but the less well off can just as easily be victims, or perhaps even more so.
To get beyond the university bubble, I contacted local grime MC Jordan Lucas-King, otherwise known as P Solja. He recounted his experiences of burglary and crime from when he lived in Gipton, a suburb of East Leeds.
"The house I was in then must have been robbed about five times in 11 years," he said. "That same house, I had at least three or four dogs stolen out of the garden. I had a Rhodesian ridgeback, for about six weeks. Then someone must have taken the dog out of the garden. Gone."
For people who don't have financial resources or prospects for legitimate employment, Lucas-King said, stealing can be a trade and a way of life, and buying stolen goods just as commonplace.
"You used to get people knocking on the door: 'I've got a motorbike, do you want to buy it?' In the pub, people would come in selling meat they've robbed from supermarkets, and people will just think, 'Yeah, that'll save me a trip to the shops on the way home.' No matter what, they'll find a way to get rid of what they've got."
But, he stressed, it doesn't happen in isolation, or without some kind of infrastructure to support it, sometimes through channels that are otherwise legal.
"If you look at shops like Cash Converters, payday loans, pawn shops, they're all in rundown areas," he said. "That adds to the burglary rate. If you know you can rob something, take it to a different area, straight into a Cash Converters, and swap it for cash, you're gonna do it. The 'system' – I use the term loosely – has made it easier for them. That's just what I've seen for myself."
(Cash Converters states on its website that the majority of its stores work closely with local police forces to prevent stolen goods from being brought into or sold in its shops.)
After the best part of a decade of austerity, certain types of crime have started to increase across the UK, notably shoplifting and mugging. When West Yorkshire's Police and Crime Commissioner issued a strategic plan for 2013-18, reduction in welfare payments and cuts to public services (including policing) were both mentioned as factors that would have a negative impact on crime in the region.
I hoped to talk to someone from the Leeds police force about some of these links, but no one was available for an interview. They did, however, offer a statement in which Chief Superintendent Paul Money, Leeds District Commander, said:
"Continuing to reduce the number of victims of burglary remains important for the police and our partner agencies in Leeds because we know it is important to the public […] A wide range of work over the last few years has brought very significant reductions – in 2009/10 we recorded just over 9,500 offences, compared to the current year-on-year total of around 4,500. Recent changes to the way we record crime have generally seen crime figures increase, and budget cuts mean we are working with less money and fewer officers and staff than in previous years."
Leeds' problem with burglary is far from black and white. It's a big city, and one with more than its fair share of social problems. It's suffering under the current recession, but as with so many areas of the north, suffered far more so after the decline of industry and the Thatcherite response in the latter part of the 20th century.
Writing about Leeds in the late-90s, journalist Nick Davies described the "perfect recipe for the destruction of a community" – first the loss of jobs, then a widespread transfer of housing from owner-occupiers to absentee landlords, and finally the removal of welfare safety nets that had always existed to protect communities from this kind of implosion. "When the work drained away from Hyde Park," he wrote, "it took with it not only the material wealth of the area, but also its emotional health."
Notwithstanding a few missteps, things have been on the up since then. Crime is down for the most part, and quality of life is better. But the remaining risk factors, social or economic, will take time to phase out; student landlords need to invest in the upkeep of their properties, and communities as a whole have to address the buying and selling practices that incentivise theft. When it comes down to it, though, some of the biggest influence on whether burglary rates go up or down may rest in the public spending policy of the current government, and the next.
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