Business as usual in Barwell

The persecution of a desperate mother who killed herself and her disabled daughter in a Leicestershire village was meant to signal a turning point in the fight against anti-social behaviour. But in a week that the conduct of local youths was back in the news, Jonathan Brown finds it is business as usual
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Wendy Woodley doesn't strike you as the sort of woman who scares easily. But although she was been born in Bardon Road and has lived here nearly all her life, she says she is too intimidated to walk down the street alone. Peering out from the window of her immaculately kept home, with its proud family photos and fashionable, modern furnishings, she is constantly on the look-out.

"I've just seen one of them striding down the street, just like he owns it, as cocky as ever," the mother-of-three said yesterday. "Sometimes it's a bit eerie. It's as if you are waiting for stuff to happen. It feels a bit like the calm before the storm."

An uneasy peace reigns over this now notorious street in the village of Barwell, Leicestershire. It is five months since television news crews packed up and left after residents of an unremarkable mix of council houses and owner-occupied red- brick semis found themselves on the frontline in the war against antisocial behaviour in Britain's forgotten communities.

It was here that Fiona Pilkington set off in despair one day in September 2007, along with her severely disabled daughter, Francecca Hardwick, 18. The family had endured a decade of abuse from local youths. It was these taunts, combined with the stress of being ignored by police and social services, that drove the devoted Ms Pilkington, 38, to take both their lives by parking their car in a lay-by and setting fire to it.

There was a national outcry when the facts of the case emerged at last year's inquest into their deaths. After criticism from a coroner, top-level investigations were launched and political promises made that victims would no longer be forced to suffer at the hands of aggressive neighbours. But this week many of Bardon Road's residents said they felt little had changed when they found themselves in the spotlight once again, as four youths appeared in court accused of harassing Ms Pilkington's friends and neighbours.

Two were convicted but charges against another of the boys were dropped when the chief prosecution witness, a parish councillor and neighbourhood watch warden, collapsed in court as she gave evidence. Yesterday, all four youths were back on the street – two on bail awaiting sentencing next month. The two "problem" families that neighbours blame for the overwhelming majority of the trouble are still living there.

Despite her anxieties, Mrs Woodley, 49, admits the rowdyism is not nearly as bad as it was three years ago when up to a dozen youths would gather to scream insults at Ms Pilkington and her children, jump on her hedge and push dog excrement and fireworks through her letterbox. Even back then, though, few neighbours knew what she was going through. Extra police patrols by day and night, and the creation of a "community house" last summer have helped to calm matters, while the determination to bring suspected harassment cases to court sent a strong message of intent from the authorities.

But with such a tragic history, it is hard to differentiate between the natural boisterousness of a vibrant, working-class community and genuine threat. "There was a lot of noise on Tuesday night," said Mrs Woodley. "I thought someone was being murdered. There is still shouting and going up and down on their bikes. They ride by and stare in your window but you just have to put up with that."

She and her friends agree that the problems with Bardon Road's young tearaways stem from poor parental control – and drink and drugs. "There are parents who sit there drinking and the kids are out all hours of the day and night," she said. "The parents don't bother with them – in fact, they sometimes sit drinking with them. Even if the police smell drugs, they say there is nothing they can do."

Her next-door neighbour, Kath Benyon, is planning to withhold her council tax until something is done. "I am going to stick by my guns. What can they do – put me in prison? I'll still get a good meal and a bed that doesn't worry me," said the 45-year-old, who works in a security shop.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission has yet to begin its enquiry into the Leicestershire force's handling of the Pilkington case, including the 33 emergency 999 calls she made pleading for help. Meanwhile, it is rumoured that one of the problem families has had a panic button fitted after receiving death threats. It is also claimed that efforts to rehouse them away from the area were blocked when their potential new neighbours raised a petition in objection to the move.

The father of one of the boys who appeared in court yesterday declined to answer questions, but insisted that his son was a victim of malicious gossips. "It is all lies – everything you hear is made up," he insisted. The Crown Prosecution Service said it decided to offer no evidence in the case after hearing testimony from the boy's alleged victim.

Andre Wheeler, a parish councillor in Barwell, believes there are some signs of recovery. A new footpath linking Bardon Road with the rest of the village was opened shortly after Christmas. Rundown parks have been spruced up and the community centre offers people help to control their alcohol use and give up smoking. Sadly, there are more deep-seated social problems to tackle here. Long gone are the days when Barwell's young people were guaranteed jobs in the region's thriving shoe and boot factories. Most have now closed and the relationship between young and old has altered dramatically.

"Community support is high here. The neighbours flagged the problems up very strongly. They were very angry about youngsters being out of control," insisted Mr Wheeler. "In the past, people may have felt they could sort out or even help these families, but things have changed and it is very hard to interject. We have moved on from saying 'if you don't give your son a clip round the ear, I will'. But I do wonder if children think they can do what they want and take advantage of the fact that adults are reluctant to take on kids."

That responsibility has instead fallen to Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council. "We felt very strongly that we had to be very focused in tackling antisocial behaviour," said its deputy chief executive, Bill Cullen. More Asbos have been handed out while the activities of known troublemakers are monitored weekly by a special task force. Council staff have been trained to identify hate crimes, and there has been a rash of education and social programmes to help young people. A grassroots-inspired "Pride in Barwell" campaign has sprung up to help clear the village's name.

"After all the negative publicity, local people want to make it clear that this is a good area and there are a lot of good people and families who live in Barwell," added Mr Cullen.