'The last journalist who came down here wrote a pack of lies,' says Anthony Long. 'We don't want you writing crap about us.'
This is my introduction to the Kids Council in Liverpool, a unique forum for children aged eight to fifteen that gives them a say in the community of West Everton. Anthony is the elected chairman of the council and is quite clear about its purpose. 'There's nothing round this area for us. There's too many smackheads going around robbing people. It's a dangerous place,' he says. 'A lot of kids go stealing cars because there's nothing else to do.'
Soon 'sleeping policemen' will sprawl across the roads thanks to a campaign by the Kids Council. A number of children have been hit by cars speeding through the narrow streets of the neighbourhood, prompting the group to lobby for improvements to road safety. Five children were killed last year in Liverpool in similar accidents. The area has one of the lowest levels of car ownership in Britain but some of the busiest traffic. Speeding cars were monitored by the children and property developers agreed to install the speed curbs on one of the area's new housing estates.
Beyond the ivy-clad garden wall of The Old Friary in the Islington district where the Kids Council meets stand rows of Georgian terraces. The roofs have been picked clean of valuable slate and the floor joists are visible through blackened windows. What were once homes
to prosperous merchants are now ghostly reminders of a more gracious age.
The area ceased to be the epitome of stylish living long before the Second World War. Today, Everton and Islington score high on all the usual indices of poverty and deprivation. The residents of concrete tower blocks complain that employers discriminate against them because they have the wrong post- code. Like Toxteth, they say the area is stigmatised, marooned by roads that seem to go nowhere and unemployment, which is everywhere.
A walk around some of the estates offers a depressing picture. Used syringes litter the stairwells of city-council-owned tower blocks. Splashes of graffiti and urine mark many of the lifts. Poor streetlighting makes parents reluctant to let children play out after dark because certain estates have become 'no go' areas.
Amid the dereliction, the community's only major asset is the local people, many of whom are single mothers. While the adults have the West Everton Community Council to represent their views on housing, health and employment initiatives, the children have the Kids Council.
'We've got a football pitch, a park, a play area and a youth club now,' says 13-year-old Jody, secretary to council, her enthusiasm giving this once shy little girl a powerful voice.
Today she has dressed to impress, in black leggings, lacy top and patent shoes. Used to commanding an audience, she assumes a natural authority over her peers. 'If it wasn't for the Kids Council, we wouldn't have nothing.' Her sister Emma agrees. 'It's given us a chance to take control of our environment,' she explains. 'Through our experience, younger kids will learn how to fight for improvements. We are the future of the community.'
Although just 14, Emma's confidence in speaking to total strangers knows no bounds. She speaks as a true believer that what she is doing is right. Her eyes glisten with conviction as she talks about the needs of local children, about what they should fight for.
Every two weeks, about 30 members assemble to plot their latest campaign. The Old Friary is a spooky, gothic building with high ceilings and cold, echoing rooms.
At the start of the meeting, the children crush on to battered chairs and sofas they found in a local charity shop. The gas fire roars at full strength as condensation forms on the windows. We are surrounded by infant paintings of fantastic swirling colours. All the adults are careful to take a back seat while Anthony, described as Mr Chairman throughout the meeting, gestures towards the flip chart in front of us.
The future of an abandoned council-owned rent office is under discussion. Beady-eyed children spotted this empty, modern building opposite their newly acquired play park. Since the neighbourhood's only youth club had closed as a result of government cuts, the former rent office seemed an ideal opportunity. 'It would be great,' says Jody. 'We could hold our meetings and pensioners could play bingo there.'
Some of the younger children squeal in delight at the prospect of having their own place. Tiny hands leap skywards to wave approval for the rent office. One little lad, who can't stop giggling, is told to shut up and take an even deeper suck on his thumb while some of the more grown-up girls chorus their concern about disturbing the university students from Africa who live in the dormitories upstairs. The motion agreed, everyone quietens down.
Formal meetings follow a strict procedure. A typed agenda is passed round by the secretary before the meeting begins. Questions are directed through Anthony. Occasionally passions run high and adults have to intervene, shouting above the melee to prevent the proceedings degenerating into chaos.
Besides lobbying politicians for improvements to children's amenities, the council organises recreational activities. At the planning shop, a former pub that was squatted by locals and now serves as a community centre, children have access to a computer and telephone. Seeing young children scouring the Yellow Pages for mobile discotheques, phoning up for quotes and negotiating the best possible deal to lay on a party for their friends is not
Parents of the children who take an active part in the Kids Council are usually active in the Community Council. Tired of having town planners and architects design housing estates that were uninhabitable, residents demanded that their views be heard through their tenants' associations. West Everton has a history of well organised tenants' groups and the Kids Council seemed a natural offshoot.
'When my children were little, they didn't play with dolls and prams, they used to sit on the step and play at having meetings,' says Ann Roach, a community worker and mother of three. Lack of creche facilities when her children were little meant she had to take them with her to community meetings.
'If one child fell out with the other, they'd say, 'Give us my pencil back, you're not the secretary any more]'. They were doing that from the age of three and four,' she says. 'The kids became used to knowing what was going on.' Two of her daughters are active in the Kids Council.
'It's about letting kids know they have rights,' says Clare Mahoney, from Save the Children, the charity that helps to run the scheme. Ms Mahoney works with parents to encourage their children to become involved with the council and develop a sense of social responsibility. 'There is very little graffiti in their play park,' she says. 'It's one of the best-kept parks in the city because children had a say in its planning and development.'
Involvement in the Kids Council has channelled the energies of children who might otherwise have found more destructive ways of occupying themselves. 'We don't want to stand around on street corners where we get into trouble and get told off,' says Emma. 'We want a safer place to live in.'
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