Australian Institute of Criminology

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The role of local government in crime prevention

In Australia, commitment to community-based models of delivery has led local government and non-government local community organisations to play important roles in the implementation of crime prevention strategies. This approach has been reflected in both national and state, and territory crime prevention programs (past and present; Cherney & Sutton 2007; Crime Prevention Queensland 1999; Henderson & Henderson 2002; Homel 2005; Homel et al. 2007; Morgan 2011; NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet 2008; Office of Crime Prevention 2004). Similar models have been adopted internationally, with an emphasis on programs that are centrally developed and delivered locally (Homel et al. 2004; Homel 2009a; IPC 2008; NZ Ministry of Justice 2003).

In practice, the Australian model has involved central agencies (federal and state government levels) responsible for crime prevention policy developing an overarching program, strategy or framework that outlines the overall goals and priorities and (in some cases) the general approach to preventing crime, providing the basis for the coordination of relevant stakeholders (UNODC 2010). These agencies then provide funding (typically of limited duration), technical support and/or establish partnerships with regional branches of government authorities, local government and non-government organisations to plan and deliver crime prevention initiatives, and support the implementation of the national or state and territory strategy (Morgan 2011).

The emphasis on a community-based approach has influenced the range of crime prevention strategies implemented in Australia over the past two decades. There has been an emphasis on community engagement and on a range of initiatives to build social cohesion, as well as attempts to address neighbourhood disadvantage, particularly in Indigenous communities (community development models; Bodson et al. 2008; CMC 2009; Homel 2005). There has also been a significant growth in the popularity of initiatives that draw upon the principles of developmental prevention and target at-risk young people in schools and the community (Weatherburn 2004). For example, a review of projects funded by the National Community Crime Prevention Programme and more recently, the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 funding program for non-government organisations, showed that there has been considerable investment in personal development projects targeting at-risk young people (Homel et al. 2007; Attorney-General’s Department 2011). Further, a nationwide audit revealed that there are thousands of early intervention programs operating across Australia, many of which do not have crime prevention as an explicit objective (Homel et al. 1999). Both government agencies with a direct service delivery function and various non-government organisations deliver a range of services that are targeted at individuals at risk of becoming an offender or victim of crime (Homel et al. 2007; Morgan 2011; Pugh & Saggers 2007; Weatherburn 2004).

Situational crime prevention and broader urban planning initiatives have also become increasingly common, although not as dominant as in other countries such as the United Kingdom (Anderson & Tresidder 2008; Tilley 2005). CPTED has had a major influence on crime prevention policy and practice in Australia, and a number of state, territory and local governments now have specific planning policies that incorporate CPTED principles or guidelines (Bodson et al. 2008; Cozens, Saville & Hillier 2005; NSW Department of Urban Affairs and Planning 2001; Office of Crime Prevention 2007; Queensland Government 2007; SAP 2000; WA Planning Commission 2006). Further, there has been considerable growth in the use of CCTV in public spaces as a crime prevention measure (Clancey 2010; Homel et al. 2007; IRIS Research Ltd 2005; Wilson & Sutton 2003) and a range of campaigns have been developed in an attempt to improve personal, vehicle, household and business security (Grabosky & James 1995; Gant & Grabosky 2000; Homel et al. 2007). The NSW CPD have, for example, developed a range of materials for residents that will assist them in reducing the likelihood that they will become a victim of burglary.

Local government are a key player in community-based crime prevention activities. Councils are responsible for a range of services related to crime prevention, including managing public space and building design, providing community recreational services and developing policies that affect local businesses (Weatherburn 2004). They are often involved in developing and implementing a range of crime prevention initiatives, frequently in partnership with other stakeholders such as police and non-government organisations (Anderson & Tressider 2008; Morgan 2011. This can include things such as helping to raise residential awareness of personal and household security measures, improving street lighting and ensuring that consideration is given to the impact of urban planning and new developments on community safety, and delivering community events and cultural programs to help build a sense of community.

Local government are also often the lead agency in the development of local crime prevention plans, which identify and prioritise concerns about community safety and crime prevention in a local government area, and identify key action areas and responsibility for these actions (Anderson & Homel 2005; Anderson & Tressider 2008; Homel 2010). Local crime prevention plans provide a useful framework to better coordinate various initiatives directed at the causes of crime, facilitate increased cooperation and collaboration between key stakeholders, and ensure a comprehensive approach to local crime problems. They are an important mechanism for engaging the local community in strategies to address local crime and safety issues (Morgan & Homel 2011; Pugh & Saggers 2007; Saggers et al. 2003). The review of a crime prevention program in Western Australia that supported local government to develop and implement crime prevention plans in partnership with a range of stakeholders demonstrated that initiatives delivered by local government tend to favour community development activities and environmental approaches to crime prevention (Morgan & Homel 2011).

Many of the risk and protective factors targeted by developmental crime prevention approaches, such as school participation, support for parents and families and access to mental health services, fall within the domain of state and territory and federal government agencies (Weatherburn 2004). Experience has shown that local government, typically given the responsibility for leading and coordinating local crime prevention activity, has little control over the actions of other levels of government working at the local level and even less control over higher level policies or resource allocation that may have an impact of crime in their communities (Anderson & Tresidder 2008; Cherney 2004; Weatherburn 2004). Local government does have more control over factors that influence the opportunities for crime to occur through its various responsibilities in areas such as managing public space and building design, providing community recreational services and developing policies that affect local businesses (Weatherburn 2004).

Reviews of local government community development activity (within which crime prevention often resides) have observed similar trends. A review of the range and extent of community development approaches found that the emphasis was on service planning and development in the form of infrastructure projects to meet the needs of the community, as well as community events and cultural programs to build a sense of community (Pugh & Saggers 2007). The delivery of community services (frequently involved in developmental crime prevention) is most commonly left to the non-government sector and communities themselves (Pugh & Saggers 2007).

Nevertheless, there are often projects delivered as part of local crime prevention plans that aim to deliver positive changes for individual participants (Morgan & Homel 2011). These initiatives may not necessarily be managed by local government. Instead, they may be delivered by other local organisations that are better placed to deliver services that can address the various individual risk factors that may increase the likelihood that a person will become involved in crime or antisocial behaviour. However, there has been an increasing demand for local government to deliver a variety of social services and to engage in social planning (Applied Economics 2008; NSW Department of Local Government 2002; Schwarz et al. 2008).

Lastly, it is worth noting that there are important differences between the roles and responsibilities of local government in Australia compared with other countries. This has important implications for assessing the suitability of crime prevention strategies, institutional arrangements and governance structures developed and implemented by local government overseas (Homel 2010). For example, some care is required in determining whether local governments in New South Wales have the capacity in terms of resources and responsibilities to implement imported strategies being delivered by local government in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, the ability of local government to influence factors that provide the opportunities for crime to occur and an increasing role in the delivery of social services, means that councils are an important player and lead agency in the planning and implementation of crime prevention plans and projects.