The single bullet that broke a community's heart

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The Independent Online

The dying child lay on the Tarmac in his Everton football kit. He was still wearing his shinpads. Sometimes it is the incongruous detail which is most unnerving. They afforded him no protection from the danger which stalked the carpark of the pub just yards from his home. A single bullet to his neck, fired by a hooded teenager on a BMX bike, had slain him.

But the detail of the locale was unnerving too. "I thought I had come to the wrong place," said one TV reporter when he arrived. "This place just doesn't fit the gun-crime stereotypes."

To get to Croxteth Park, where 11-year-old Rhys Jones was murdered, you drive through rough-looking places. It is what you might expect of the area where the onetime Everton hero Wayne Rooney grew up and learned his game against blank brick walls in streets where betting shops, Bargain Booze off-licences and unbranded fast-food shops dominate. Buildings are boarded up. High corrugated iron fences line the roadsides along which tattooed men promenade with small squat dogs straining at their leashes.

The Liverpool Echo yesterday carried news of a murder trial in which most of the defendants were residents of this area. The teenager who had been blasted in the head with a sawn-off shotgun had been in a gang feuding with the Croxteth Crew gang.

But the area in which the child was shot is different. It is a private housing estate with mock Tudor white-timbered gables above the new brick. Solar-powered garden lights line the short drives. Children's scooters lie by the wall. The Fir Tree pub is an upmarket newbuild in the style of a barn conversion.

There has been anti-social activity around the pub and nearby shops which is the focal point of the 3,500-home estate but local people say it is caused by outsiders. Police have warned of an increase in thefts of sat navs from vehicles and announced that police patrols have returned 52 truants to school.

Some locals are blunt in their criticism. One resident complains on his website of "some nice areas, green trees etc. unfortunately ruined by huge, ugly low-rise flats where the scum of the earth are moved in (and out) on a regular basis".

He complains of "the local Asbo child psychopath who is so crazy he once pulled a knife on a group of men because they wouldn't buy him a beer from the pub".

But the local councillor, Rose Bailey, says: "I have lived in Croxteth for 26 years and I have never, ever been afraid to walk the streets". Violent crime in Liverpool went down by 27 per cent last year. Dispersal orders have led to a 49 per cent reduction in overall crime in certain areas, and anti-social behaviour incidents in Croxteth have fallen by 22 per cent in the past three months. Even so, says the Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, on a visit to the area, "gun crime is endemic in our society. Nowhere is completely safe".

Susan O'Rourke, 69, and her daughter have just laid an Everton wreath at the spot where the 11-year-old died. "I have told my daughter that she should emigrate and I think she will when she has finished her degree." New Zealand would be best, her daughter added. The bishop has less dramatic solutions. "The police have to be in a relationship with local people. You can't do that in a panda car or a call-centre. Police have to be out, on street corners. We found that when we put police back on the streets in inner-city areas of Liverpool people began to report crime to them; and began to feel safe."

He also wants parental responsibility revisited. "I was recently in a Sure Start nursery with excellent facilities. The trouble was, the staff told me, that the parents who most needed the place never came. I would like to see the government give double child benefit for the first year to every parent who undertook a 12-week parenting course where they would learn techniques for conflict management and for building their children's self-esteem."

In areas of consolidated poverty, where the landscape and buildings are impoverished, where unemployment goes back three generations and where and poor self-esteem and low aspirations have produced a generation of young people who try to find their sense of self-respect by joining gangs, something is needed, he says, to break the vicious circle.

The place to start is with the parents of the youngest children to help them understand the dynamics of how to grow a healthy human being.

"When you know that someone loves you it starts the process. Love is the antidote to low self-esteem."