Demolition begins on troubled estate

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The Independent Online
The demolition men moved in this week to demolish 10 blocks of flats perched more than 1,000ft above the Rhondda Valley in South Wales.

The four-storey buildings, empty since the beginning of the year, dominate the Penrhys estate where, in the past fortnight, the 3,000 residents have witnessed nightly confrontations between young arsonists, some about 10 years old, and firefighters and police.

The skirmishes have become a ritual. A fire started inside a derelict flat provides the trigger; firemen arrive to be greeted with stone throwing; police are called in; the gangs melt away through the maze of paths and backstreets which criss-cross the estate. On one occasion firemen were forced to withdraw.

Scorched facades and roofs with tiles ripped off are a mute testimony to a troubled generation of youngsters, most of whose parents are on the dole. Unemployment on the estate is around 75 per cent. The Rhondda's four job centres have a total of only 101 vacancies on their books.

Symbols of deprivation - worn-out shoes, discarded clothing, ragged bedding - lie in rooms blackened by smoke. Wiring dangles like spaghetti. Outside, broken glass litters pavements.

The ugly scenes have prompted Rhondda Borough Council to hasten the demolition project. Gwyn Evans, the council's chief executive, recalled that some years ago, when firemen were called out to deal with similar situations, flak jackets were the order of the day. 'Now it's been resurrected,' he said.

When Penrhys was built in the 1960s it was hailed as a breakthrough in community housing. Times change and three years ago the Prince of Wales criticised what he described as a poorly planned design.

Robert Jones, 16, is one of the 900 or so youngsters living on the estate. He was seeking 6p towards the price of a bag of chips: 'I left school at Easter and I haven't got a job. If you come from Penrhys you're not likely to get one,' he said. 'My father's last job was as a nightwatchman. He's been on the dole for two years.'

Julie White, who runs a voluntary playgroup, was burgled earlier this month. She blames parents for the trouble: 'Where are they?' A recent arrival, Reg Leonard, points to scratches on his car. 'Those kids. There's no control,' he sighed.

Mr Leonard served 25 years in the RAF and later became a union shop steward at the Royal Mint, 15 miles away at Llantrisant. He spends his retirement doing voluntary work for the Royal British Legion, chasing up claims for war pensions. 'There's a lot needs doing around here to put heart back into the people,' he said.

A start has been made by the Rev John Morgans, who came to Penrhys six years ago. With a team of dedicated volunteers he led an ecumenical mission which converted one block into a chapel, plus cafe, creche, launderette and study rooms. 'Young people see unemployment as the norm. Many have never known their parents to be in work,' he said.

A credit union, established to try to oust money-lenders who, it is claimed, make the poor poorer by charging high interest rates, is taking root.

Joan Evans, a retired nurse and one of the estate's first tenants, presides over the scheme: 'We are registered as a Friendly Society and we've got 140 shareholders who are charged only 1 per cent interest.'

A poster advertising a Welsh National Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde in Treorchy is pinned to Mr Morgans's notice board. The epic voyage of Noah's Ark had a happy ending. The journey to bring Penrhys to a safe harbour is likely to be no less arduous.

(Photograph omitted)