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In common with many areas of England, Camden Town, where I live, saw extensive civil disorder last night. Shop and pub windows were smashed, there were numerous confrontations between police and scores of citizens and a number of shops were looted.

In common with many areas of England, Camden Town, where I live, saw extensive civil disorder last night. Shop and pub windows were smashed, there were numerous confrontations between police and scores of citizens and a number of shops were looted.

Pretty soon I started hearing about plans for organise volunteers to clean up the mess in the morning. A lovely idea.

This morning I woke up early to walk around my neighbourhood to assess the damage. I saw three shops with extensive damage to their frontage. They had uniformed police officers standing outside them. There were a number of other shops with damage to windows. Many of these already had glaziers attending to fix the damage. There was very little rubbish or broken glass on the streets or in the roads. The street cleaners were out in greater numbers than normal. I decided that there was not actually any cleaning up that I could do, so I came to work.

This got me thinking about sectors. It is conventional to divide the country up into three sectors; public (government), private (business) and community (charities and community groups). There is a lot of rubbish talked about the supposed superiority of the various sectors. Listening to some people it can sound like all business are innovative, or that all state employees are motivated by a strong public ethos or that all charities have unbreakable bonds of trust between them and their users. Actually, of course, the picture is varied across all the sectors.

People feel safer in neighbourhoods where greater numbers of people know their neighbours by name

A spontaneous effort to clean up mess is a heartening response to civil disorder. However, it is also exactly the type of problem that the public and private sector are better at responding to. As Adam Smith famously said “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Similarly, we expect businesses to fix their windows and the council to sweep the streets.

However, there are some activities that the community sector is best placed to undertake. As Tessy Britton and Cormac Russell have argued, people feel safer in neighbourhoods where greater numbers of people know their neighbours by name and where people spend more time together with each other outside of the house. Whenever there is civil disorder there is always a lot of talk about “long term” solutions. Let’s hope that this time the long term solutions include attempts to build more connected communities.

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