Blocks transformed by teamwork on knife-edge

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The Independent Online

Fifteen years ago, the offer of a flat on the Honor Oak council estate in Lewisham, south-east London was enough to chill the hearts of homeless families.

The estate of 40 low-rise, barrack-like blocks, erected in the early 1930s, seemed like heaven to its first slum-clearance residents. But by the 1970s, neglect, disrepair, crime and deprivation had earned the estate and its 2,000 residents an appalling reputation. No one wanted to move to Honor Oak and few companies would employ anyone who lived there.

Today, homes in Honor Oak are still hard to let but thanks to the efforts of residents, local professionals and council staff, the estate is no longer the worst in Lewisham. Buildings have had a major facelift and an on-site housing team and 10 caretakers ensure the communal greens are tidy and graffiti quickly washed away.

But residents and staff warn that the estate's fortunes are balanced on a knife edge. Without major investment, hard-won gains could slip away.

"Good management by local housing officers now masks the problems," said Heather Mallinder, neighbourhood manager. "Because of the shortage of social housing, councils only pick up the most vulnerable clients now so you have a lot of needy families, highly dependent on social services, congregated together."

On all social indicators, Honor Oak still fares badly. More than 30 per cent are unemployed and 22 per cent are lone parents. The rate of mental illness is well above average as is the number of children taken into care and considered at risk.

Cliff Pearce, 43, a former chairman of the residents' association who grew up on the estate, believes problems have increased since the withdrawal of a social work team in a recent round of council cuts. "The estate is so isolated," he said. "Many people cannot get down to social services, that's why social services came to them."

Most worrying for Ms Mallinder is the huge increase in children on an estate - 35 per cent of residents are under 18 - which has few facilities and is poorly served by public transport. Teenagers roam in packs at night and there have been three drug-related shootings in the past two years. Mr Pearce believes youth unemployment adds to the lethal cocktail. "When I left school at 16 I had five jobs to chose from. In the last 10 years it has become really dire and jobs for young people just don't seem to be there."

Most residents were surprised by the estate's Top 20 deprivation rating. John Morgan, 32, was born in Honor Oak and is now raising two children there. "I didn't think I was growing up in an area of multiple deprivation," he said. "Some properties need to be improved but there is a good community spirit."

But not all are convinced that life has improved. Dorothy Mayers, 54, a former home help, came to Honor Oak with her two children after separating from her husband 21 years ago. "It's been a pretty good place to stay but over the last 12 years it has been going downhill. The council does its best to keep the flats looking their best outside but there isn't enough money to do the insides and not everyone can afford to do it themselves. Crime has got worse and there are fewer shops."