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  • Writer's pictureYannick Mitchell

Tackling serious violence requires a focus on its root causes

Updated: May 16

Drawing on his first-hand experience of violence prevention initiatives, Yannick Mitchell argues that tackling serious violence requires system-wide collaboration and prevention.

In 2005, the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) formed by Strathclyde Police was the first in the UK to attempt a public health approach to tackling violence – built around the understanding that preventing violence means addressing its root causes, not just focusing on the impact violence has on communities.

2024 will mark five years since Violence Reductions Units were created across 18 Police Force Areas in England and Wales, tasked with taking a ‘whole system’ approach to reducing serious violence. The number of VRUs has since grown to 20.

I worked as part of a hospital-based violence intervention programme alongside youth workers who met young people in A&E every day after suffering life-altering injuries. I’ve seen that it’s never too late to break the cycle of violence.

For me, the ambition should not be to intervene 'just in time', or before it’s 'too late', instead it must be handled the same way it was in Scotland – as a public health issue, where it is just as much about prevention as treatment.

If, as London Mayor Sadiq Khan has said, it takes a generation for significant progress to be made in reducing violence, what can VRUs do in the shorter term to feel confident that this approach will work?

Firstly, VRUs must continue to build on the great strides they’ve already made on working towards a ‘whole systems’ approach. Although the Serious Violence Duty now sets a requirement for specified authorities within a local government area to collaborate on tackling violence, there are plenty of examples of VRUs who have taken this further to truly involve the whole system. For example, the West Midlands Violence Reduction Partnership, originally between Public Health England and the West Midlands Police, has expanded to include partners in local government, criminal justice, sports and education, in order to take on a system-wide collaborative approach towards reducing violence in the area.

Secondly, there must be continued emphasis on prevention and early intervention. This means thinking about violence in the same way that epidemiologists think about the spread of diseases: understanding the root causes of the problem to create, test and scale up interventions. 

It also means accepting that it can’t be a truly public health approach if it doesn’t acknowledge the deprivation effect. A good way of seeing this comparison is through the eyes of the Covid-19 pandemic: more deprived areas in England were the hardest hit, and some of the most deprived boroughs in London experienced higher death rates than most other areas in the country. Many of those same boroughs also experience the highest levels of violent offending.

While it is not for VRUs alone to reduce poverty, projects that can reduce deprivation by providing more opportunities for young people at risk of being out of education or employment should form part of local strategies. The Merseyside Violence Reduction Partnership project ‘Weapons Down Gloves Up’ engages young people through boxing and has successfully partnered with a civil engineering company to help young people gain qualifications and employment in construction. In the first six months of the programme, 38 young people received Construction Skills Certification Scheme qualifications and 23 had started full-time employment.

Thirdly, and crucially, projects must be co-produced using the ‘nothing about us, without us’ mindset. This is the approach that the MyEnds Programme funded through London’s VRU takes. It works across eight London boroughs, bringing together voluntary and community services into a consortium and providing them with the resources to design and deliver violence prevention services alongside the communities they serve. The programme highlights the successes it has had in developing solutions with grassroots organisations who know the communities and can co-produce services alongside them.

Finally, if VRUs are to have a lasting impact in reducing violence then a long-term funding approach will be necessary. A lack of certainty leaves partnerships in limbo and unable to progress from pilot stages; a recent Home Office evaluation cited ‘uncertainty over future funding’ as a barrier to effective multi-agency working and strategic planning that encourages multi-year interventions.

Despite funding uncertainties, it is clear that the approach is the right one. There is enough of a body of evidence that now exists through the success of the VRU model in Scotland and in the first four years in England and Wales. It is now time to scale up the interventions we know will work in reducing violence: interventions that involve the whole system, that target the effects of deprivation, and are rooted in co-production of services.

To get in touch about the issues in this article or how MV might be able to support your organisation contact


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