Everybody needs good neighbours, so advertise for some

Tobias Jones on a novel scheme of spiritual and social support to revitalise a 'forsaken' estate
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The Independent Online
PENDOWER used to be known as the "uniformed" estate for its pre- war respectability and the number of postmen and milkman who lived in its red-brick rows.

In recent years the model village atmosphere has been soured by crime, and people have drifted away. Along its streets are boarded-up properties painted with the "GO" and "EO" signs that let the demolition men know the gas and electricity supplies are off, and thus that the houses are safe to be knocked down.

Now, though, this downward spiral could be halted if an off-beat initiative by the local vicar Richard Taylor is successful. The "Good Neighbour House Project" in the parish of St James's, in Benwell, west Newcastle, seems deceptively simple; to move in new, "perfect" neighbours to the estate and help encourage residents to return the area to better days.

As a "presence - a sign of God's love in an area that often seems forsaken," Rev Taylor is recruiting a worker who could operate an "open door" policy, liaising with residents to stave off "poor housing, fear of crime and vandalism, higher than average unemployment levels and increased chronic ill health".

Following advertisements in the Church Times, the Diocesan Monthly and Newcastle's Evening Chronicle for someone to "provide stability", the job applications have begun to flood in: from Dorchester, Hastings, Norwich, even Australia.

But the Rev Taylor's plan for super-neighbours has aroused unease in some existing residents, who are wary of a "holier than thou" outsider coming to preach on their doorsteps - not to mention somewhat resentful at the portrayal of "forsaken" Pendower that goes with it.

"There are a lot of decent people here" says the aggrieved owner of one of the five houses still occupied on Dorces Avenue. "I've lived here for 30 years, and I'm very happy."

Some also doubt that the scheme sits well with the "grass roots" remit of the Church Urban Fund which finances "bottom-up" initiatives; the Fund will be providing pounds 18,000 over a three-year period for a "good neighbour" who may yet turn out to be a complete outsider.

Others question whether the project can make any real difference. Ken Craig of MCL Demolition sums up the defeatism as he watches his men razing two streets to make way for an all-weather football pitch: "They'll rip that up as well. You won't ever change these people, simple as that."

Through Reviving the Heart, a consortium of community groups, and the Single Regeneration Budget, which invites bidding for Government money, there are already many similar schemes operational in the area: a Church Army chaplain resident on the Buddle Road Estate, a vicar on the Guinness Trust Estate, the Cornerstone Cafe in Benwell and Sister Christine's Kids' Cabin at Walker. Carla Roth, of the Church Urban Fund, says "in urban estates, the clergy are often the only remaining professional people". Canon Bob Langley of Newcastle Cathedral, says: "These projects offer people's lives a richer hue in what can otherwise be pretty drab surroundings."

Rev Taylor's idea, though, is more novel, aiming as it does to put in place a virtuous lay individual or family to offer "support materially, spiritually and socially" among the rows of red-brick and pebble-dash.

Some concern has been expressed about the high-profile trumpeting of the the scheme, with its very public advertisement for the job and the press interest it has aroused."The person who goes there will inevitably face a degree of hostility,".says Canon Langley. "It has been handled in a way which tends to devalue the estate."

None the less, Sir Jeremy Beecham, former leader of Newcastle City Council and councillor for the Benwell ward for 31 years, is optimistic: "It's not an awful place, it's certainly not a second Beirut. But if we're going to head off people from complete alienation it's exactly the kind of project that needs to be tried."

St James's Parish Church certainly has a pedigree in Newcastle. Of the two Victorian architects of the city's renaissance, Richard Grainger is buried within its grounds, and John Dobson, who built the Central Station, designed its beamed roof. But like the Pendower, it now has a sense of the besieged, with wire mesh over the stained glass, and graffiti on its stones.

Richard Taylor is short, his white beard yellowing from constant smoking. As he walks up the hill from the vicarage to the Pendower, he meets a couple of children throwing stones at the few remaining windows. "I hope you'll be singing at St. James's this weekend" he says to the older of the two. He means not at the football stadium with the Toon Army, but in his church. The boy agrees. "Everyone," he says, "needs their own spiritual resources to fall back on."