Them, us and the Putney war

The furious residents of a well-to-do area of west London have denounced a housing project for jobless black teenagers. Is it nimbyism or fear about increased crime? Mary Braid reports
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"There's always been an attitude of them and us around here," says a dissident member of the Solna Avenue Residents' Association in affluent west Putney, London. "No matter what is said to explain the outcry the fact is the housing project would bring them even closer to us."

A few streets away in Solna Avenue itself stands "the project" - an attractive three-storey complex of self-contained flats, purpose-built to house eight jobless black teenagers who are leaving care. A few weeks ago it was set to receive its first residents. The "foyer" scheme - originally conceived by a now defunct black housing association - aimed to provide them with accommodation, training and employment to ease the often troubled transition to independent living. Foyer schemes, which were developed in France, are designed to break the cycle of "no home, no job, no job, no home".

Today the flats lie empty and their would-be occupants are in limbo, victims of a bitter row between hundreds of local residents and the scheme's organisers that may scupper the £365,000 project. Some whisper that Nimbyism is at work on a grand scale in this Tory stronghold, reflecting a national trend against such schemes.

Nevertheless, the occupants of the expensive, detached homes in this essentially white neighbourhood claim they have been betrayed and deceived by officials.

War broke out a few days before the first teenagers were due at 2 Solna Avenue when a letter addressed to the project's managing agent - the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders - was mistakenly delivered to the home of William Flatau, a publisher who lives in a £360,000 modern town house opposite.

Mr Flatau, chairman of the residents' association, was dismayed to find that Nacro was to be his new neighbour. An "emergency" public meeting was quickly organised at the local primary school and a leaflet warning that a "bail hostel" would soon be operating on the doorstep was circulated to local homes. Within no time, 400 people had signed a petition calling for the project to be cancelled and the local paper was highlighting neighbours fears about the "home for bail bandits".

Descriptions of the public meeting, attended by 150 people and chaired by local Tory MP David Mellor, range from "fraught" to "venomous". Wandsworth Council had granted Threshold Housing Association's project planning permission following the statutory consultation period but resident after resident complained that this was the first they had heard of an influx of "offenders". They said they had assumed the billed "special needs" accomodation was for handicapped people.

Mike Stewart, director of services for Nacro, insisted the organisation had described the project fully to Wandsworth Council. But he failed to convince residents that Nacro was only involved for its expertise in managing schemes for young people and that the project was never intended for ex-offenders. Locals were furious that Nacro, Threshold and Wandsworth Council could not give a categorical promise that the residents would have never been found guilty of a criminal offence.

On a vote, only 20 people were willing to give the project a chance and just three residents broke ranks to speak in support of the project. "The man behind me was shouting that no one had ever helped him in his life and he didn't see why society should help these people," says one resident, who wished to remain anonymous. "Then one young woman stood up and said she was appalled by the opinion of her neighbours. I went to get facts but we didn't get that. Everyone was being stirred up like it was a football match. People are complaining that consultation was badly handled. But that is different from whether the project should actually be here. The truth is people are obsessed with property prices and anything that might cause them to go down."

"I just had to say I didn't agree with them," says Mrs Rosemarie Wilkinson, retired chairwoman of the Children's Society social work committee, one of the few who spoke up for the project. "People coming out of care need somewhere decent to live. I feel very strongly that if you don't give people the chance to behave well then they never will. I would have supported it even if it had been for ex-offenders.

"People are saying that the project is badly placed because there are no nearby transport facilities, sports amenities or training opportunities. The flats are 50 yards from sports facilities - including a floodlit football pitch - and within walking distance of the tube, a community workshop and a technical college."

Local opposition remains strong. Some claim "breakdown in trust" prohibits any advancement of the project. Others, like Mary Holben, a local Tory councillor, claim this corner of west Putney has nothing to offer young people leaving care. "There would be nothing whatsoever for them to do here. There are no facilities for them." The eight new residents, it seems, would not be welcome at the sports centre across the road from their new homes. "Those facilities are for the local estate, not for people coming in," she says. "We don't want it vandalised."

According to one resident, Number 2's strategic position on the corner of Solna Avenue and Westleigh Avenue has inflamed local reaction. Westleigh is the front line between the affluent avenues and the sprawling Ashburton council estate, a prime example of post-war social engineering. "People on this side of Westleigh Avenue never use the shops on the council estate although they are close," he says. "Building the flats on this side of Westleigh is like letting the other side in."

But Ms Holben, who lives on the Ashburton estate, argues that the housing project would have been no more welcome on the other side of Westleigh Avenue. The estate was not leafleted to canvass opinion and few of its residents appear to have attended the public meeting, but Ms Holben insists that residents there are also opposed to the scheme and that many share Mr Flatau's fear that crime would increase. "These flats are right opposite sheltered housing. Lots of elderly people were nervous about it. We don't want drug addicts and offenders here. We had no objections to the place being used for special needs. Although we did object when a school for learning difficulties was set up here in 1981, we support it now. We hardly know they are there."

Mike Stewart, Nacro's director of services, has never encountered such vociferous opposition. "We even offered residents the opportunity to go on the management committee to vet those who came in," he says. Mr Mellor supported that suggestion but the residents rejected it.

"This is the first foyer we have been involved in and we never thought this was a sensitive project. But this row reflects a national trend of increased opposition to projects of this nature. People are getting a lot from both political parties about being hard on crime. That makes it very difficult for projects which deal with people who can be easily stereotyped."

With around 25 per cent of prisoners coming from care backgrounds, he considers supportive schemes like Solna Avenue to be a vital part of crime prevention.

Paul Rydquist, chief executive of Threshold, says that he hoped a scheme similiar to that originally planned would still go ahead. After all, he says, the project reflected Wandsworth Council's perceived priority needs.

But residents in nearby Ravenna Road have told Threshold they intend to oppose planning permission for another project to house teenagers who have been in care, and young families.

Meanwhile, the residents of Solna Avenue are pushing for the new flats to be leased to nurses from the local hospital.