Even the stairwells were perfumed for Blair's visit

Jojo Moyes followed the Prime Minister to the Aylesbury estate in south London
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The Independent Online
It was obvious the stairway that Tony Blair was going to use on the Aylesbury estate. It was the only one that had been disinfected, its customary scent of urine replaced by a heady "spring freshness".

"They have never done that to my stairs," said Daphney Mackenzie. "They always smell of urine. Sometimes I go out onto the stairwell and I even find number twos there."

Daphney Mackenzie has lived on the Aylesbury Estate in Walworth, south London, for 27 years, and was one of its first tenants.

"It was lovely, marvellous, a very safe place. People used to envy me living here." Now, she says, it should be burnt down. "It's all gone. People are in and out, so you don't get any sense of community. I was burgled twice, my daughter was burgled twice. ...Those stairs that Tony Blair is using, they've put all the rubbish from them outside my flat - I hope the kids don''t set light to it."

Her fears are not ungrounded. The Aylesbury Estate, until recently, had a reputation even among police as something of a "no-go area". The sprawling Seventies estate, one of the largest in Europe and housing some 2,400 households, was meant to be a "system-built" dream. You can see something of it in the layout; some architect probably imagined young families playing in its vast green spaces, and walking futuristically along its elevated walkways. But the grass is sad and yellowed, the brightly coloured paint that tried to brighten the rough-cast concrete now peels off in clumps and the walkways had to be knocked down 18 months ago to stem the mugging and burglary rate.

As with the most notorious estates, the Aylesbury has bred its own vicious circle of problems. A spokeswoman from Southwark Council reels off the statistics: 17 per cent of households are registered unemployed, 59 per cent are on housing benefit and 78 per cent of its 17-year-olds are not in full-time education. There are more lone parents on the estate than anywhere else in the borough.

There is nothing for kids to do anyway, say the residents. So they take drugs, or smash the lights in the corridors so that they can vandalise and steal without being seen.

Some of this has been tempered by the introduction, two years ago, of private security firms who now patrol the estate in the evenings. Closed circuit cameras are also employed in trouble spots and there is a thriving neighbourhood watch scheme in place.

"It has got better," said Paul Thomas, who had lived there four years. "The high-rise areas seem to have the most problems. But if people haven't got anything to do then they're going to end up in crime."

For this reason the estate's young are seen as a crucial part of its regeneration. The Cadcam training centre in the notorious Wendover blocks, which Mr Blair was visiting, is a key part of that. Since its inception in 1991, it has seen nearly 4,000 local people pass through its doors, to take vocational training in subjects like information technology and graphic design. It offers home-based schemes, whereby single mothers have computer terminals wired into their homes and learn through modems.

Its success rates are unusually high: more than 80 per cent of young people go on to jobs or further education.

"We have these disaffected youths just hanging about, with no motivation. We go out and recruit them, bring them in here and find something to interest them," said Maura Santos, who runs the centre.

"There are people who need a lot of persuading. But these are people who have suffered massively. There are terribly sad stories on this estate."

Those sad stories - the man who had had no heating for two years, the suicide, the gun siege and the schizophrenic who had killed his mother - were briefly forgotten yesterday, as Mr Blair pulled up in his dark green Jaguar.

Bronzed and beaming, he reached out and shook the hands of the few cheering residents that had waited for his arrival. Daphney Mackenzie was one of them. "I'm not going to wash my hands now," she smiled afterwards.

Emmanuel Metzger, a hotel worker, was another: "It makes a difference, him coming here. I'm happy to see him today. He cares for the masses," he said, watching as the Prime Minister disappeared up the disinfected stairs. "We are praying for Mr Blair, that everything goes well for him. So that he can make a difference."