North v South: Oxford fights over a girl

A middle-class couple want to adopt a child from the poor side of town, but few are happy. By Ros Wynne-Jones
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"I've got a Blackbird Leys joke for you," says a 13-year-old Oxford public schoolboy. Blackbird Leys, a sprawling network of council estates to the south-east of the university's dreaming spires, is the butt of a lot of jokes in Oxford, as if residents cannot quite believe it is part of their local landscape.

"There's a Formula 1 team who are looking for a new pit crew, so they interview three groups from Manchester, London and Blackbird Leys. The London team take 10 seconds to take the tyres off a car. The Manchester team take eight seconds. Blackbird Leys do it in five and get the job."

Although the jobs in the car factories which first brought people to Blackbird Leys have long since gone, the estate is still best known for its links with the motor car. Sporadic bursts of joyriding on hot summer nights have brought international media attention and labels like "Oxford's Toxteth" to the area.

This weekend an 11-year-old girl from the estate, who cannot be named for legal reasons, is waiting to learn whether she is to be adopted by a middle-class academic couple. Her new family, who have fostered her since she was seven because her mother had drug and alcohol problems, live a world apart from the place where she grew up, in the prosperous northern section of the city where the leafy suburban streets are lined with large houses and neat gardens. Even so, the girl herself doesn't want to be adopted and her natural mother wants to remain her mother. The local authority is also opposing adoption.

The case is an emotive one for residents of Blackbird Leys, who will see a ruling against the natural mother as a slight against Blackbird Leys, as if it is a place where picturesque Oxford doesn't think children ought to be brought up. For them, the adoption battle is as much a tale of two cities as of two families.

The first 2,800 houses on the estate were built in the 1960s to house car workers. Then, families living in cramped accommodation in the rest of the city were offered the opportunity of a new life on the estate. More people came when the council cleared the people who lived in the St Ebbe's area of the city to build the high-tech Westgate Centre shopping complex.

Since the late 1970s, however, the workforce of the car factories has been reduced by more than 20,000 jobs. According to 1992 census figures, one in four people living on the estate now live in families where the sole source of income is income support, 37.5 per cent are in receipt of housing benefit, and two-thirds of people on the estate live in rented, mainly council, accommodation. Another huge estate has recently been added to the Blackbird Leys development.

"This is the Oxford you don't see in the postcards," says one elderly woman who was moved, against her wishes, from St Ebbe's. "But although we're poor we're good, decent people out here." Lily Beechers, a 47-year- old mother who has lived on the estate for most of her life, says she is fed up with the bad press Blackbird Leys gets. "It's a good place for children to grow up," she says. "Of course, I'd love to live in one of those big houses in north Oxford, who wouldn't? But people think that just because you live in Blackbird Leys you must be a bad mother."

Her 10-year-old son, Billy, says he wouldn't like to move. "I want to live near my friends," he explains, "and there are lots of places to play football." A little girl proudly demonstrates that you can ring the buzzer in one tower block and speak to someone in another. "It's magic," she says.

A passing woman says it's hard watching students throwing champagne all over each other in Oxford High Street after exams - and harder still hearing that money is being poured into listed buildings in the city centre. "They like to pretend we don't exist," she says.

In north Oxford, one woman outside a florist says she would "rather die" than have her kids grow up in Blackbird Leys. "If the adopted girl can have a better life here," she adds, "maybe she should live in north Oxford."

William Martin, a 13-year-old who lives in the area, says he wouldn't like to be growing up in Blackbird Leys, "although I've played football up there and lots of the people are really nice".

Agnes Smith, 41, an advice worker in Blackbird Leys, says local facilities are actually good. "It's the area's reputation, hyped up by the media, which is the real problem," she says. "The schools have been excellent for my children, there are good sports and music facilities and I enjoy living in a multicultural community."

Outside, the advice centre a man mutters that the area is a "punchbag for everything that goes wrong in Oxford". Whatever the judgment made next week in the adoption case, it will be hard for people in Blackbird Leys not to take it personally.