Barwell: A false symbol of broken Britain

The deaths of a mother and her disabled daughter turned Barwell into a political battleground. But the debate about the tragedy is missing the point, argues Julian Baggini
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"This is Barwell, a pleasant, unremarkable town near Hickley in Leicestershire, but one which will from now on be known for two tragic deaths." It was the fifth or sixth take for the television presenter, whose cameraman was struggling to keep some "feral" youth out of shot.

Like most of the village's residents, the teenagers have got used to the irritant of film crews on their streets, like the one which had put them on the telly "just because we were kicking stones".

The media have descended because of the inquest into the deaths of Fiona Pilkington and Francecca "Frankie" Hardwick, her disabled daughter, 18, who had the mind of a four-year-old.

In October 2007, Pilkington parked her car in a deserted lay-by and set fire to it. The inquest into their deaths concluded that the suicide and unlawful killing were the result of 18 months of torment by youths and the failure of public services in dealing with them.

Like many towns before it that have played host to headline-grabbing tragedies, Barwell will have to live with a notoriety it doesn't deserve. No wonder its residents have wearied of the press. Some of those on Barden Road, where Pilkington and Hardwick lived, became so sick of inquiring reporters that they put up "no media" signs on their doors.

But the Barwell of news reports is not a real place. It is a symbol, standing for the scourge of anti-social behaviour, youth run wild, public service failure and the breakdown of community. Barwell is being treated as a mirror that reflects the state of the nation when it is in fact a screen on to which we project our anxieties. As it turns out, the projection exaggerates and distorts all the elements that it appears to put into focus, and almost completely misses one of the key parts of the picture.

The inquest verdict confirmed the arrival of "anti-social behaviour" as a full-blown moral panic. Gordon Brown made it the centrepiece of his speech at the Labour conference, but there wasn't even a hint that he would do so until the inquest hit the headlines on Monday.

Clearly Brown believes this is an issue voters are concerned about. But how much does it affect them? Barwell may now be notorious for it but even there, as the Methodist minster Andrew Murphy attests, "It's not a fact of life for most people. It's a problem for a minority of people who face it on their doorstep."

Sam Dimmer, who has been covering the case for the local paper, The Hinckley Times, says that there isn't even a general problem where Pilkington and Hardwick lived – and he should know, since his girlfriend lives on the same street. "One of the things that was emphasised at the start of the case in the national reporting was that Bardon Road, Barwell itself, was some sort of anti-social behaviour ghetto where kids just ran wild. It's never been that bad.

"I've lived here all my life and I've never had a problem with crime."

His editor, Simon Holden, is of the same view, and thinks that such problems as do exist are "probably about the same" as they were when he was a kid.

If the new national symbol of anti-social behaviour doesn't have too much of it, you have to wonder whether many places do. A similarly skewed perspective seems to affect the way we view children, who are widely seen as out of control. Yet like the annoying brats trying to spoil the TV news report in the centre of Barwell, most are hardly threatening monsters. They spoke quite civilly when approached.

Plenty of people think that children today are worse than they used to be. Reg Green ought to know. He's the volunteer chairman of The Hinckley Club for Young People and has been involved with the club since its founding in 1959.

Some of his opinions sound like they come from the Daily Mail: "When I were a kid, the local bobby would clip you round the ear hole, and if he went and told your dad, your dad would give you a good hiding. But nowadays your dad can't give you a good hiding, can he?"

Mr Green says Asbos are a "badge of honour", kids know that they're "untouchable" and the "law is on their side and that the victims, all the way down the line, are the ones that are punished".

But he agrees it's a minority who causes serious harm, that many of the children who come to his club are "absolutely brilliant" and it is a hard core of troublemakers causing the problems.

Andre Wheeler, the Barwell Parish Council chairman, takes a similar line: "I wouldn't say children think they can do what they like, but they can't be pulled up." But, he says, "when I walk across to the skateboarding park, I talk to the children, and they're all very pleasant, they're certainly very courteous. There are always one or two ... but it's no different from anywhere else".

To the mythical plagues of anti-social behaviour and youth out of control, a third social pestilence can be added: the breakdown of community. It's not that there isn't anything to the claim, but the irony is that community is often strongest in those areas where social problems are greater.

Dimmer points to "areas that are renowned for not being as desirable as others in the borough" as being precisely the ones where a sense of community does still exist. "Wykin has got a phenomenal sense of community," he says of one of the poorer areas. "Everyone knows everyone."

The lack of social mobility which causes problems is what keeps people in the same place for years, creating the stability and familiarity that is missing from neighbourhoods that are full of people passing through on their way up the property ladder.

Anti-social behaviour, feral youth and weakening of communities form a triad of concerns that cuts across politics. Left and right focus on different aspects of the nexus, to the extent that they can miss the fact that whether you're concerned with the impact on "ordinary hard-working families" or those falling by the wayside, you're still accepting the picture of a "broken Britain".

It's not just that this picture is inaccurate. Common ideas about where the roots of such problems (as do exist) lie, and their solutions, are often incoherent or contradictory. Take the issue of the nanny state. Labour has been criticised for measures such as Asbos, which are seen as criminalising low-level misbehaviour. But if we take a historical view, it seems that current laws are nothing. Holden came across one illuminating story in the archives of the The Hinckley Times from the 1930s.

"A policeman came along and told a couple of young kids of 10 or 11 to stop playing football in Castle Street. Half an hour later, he came back and found them still playing football so he took them down the police station, brought their parents down, charged them and they were up in court the next day and were fined."

Green also recalls being taken to court for not having a back light on his bike. This is a far cry from the romantic image we have of adults keeping everyone in line with some strong words and the odd thrashing.

The role of the state becomes even more confusing when you consider how the inquest into the Pilkington and Herdwick deaths focused on the failure of authorities to deal with the situation properly. Yet in many ways there have never been so many public agencies. Dimmer suggests this might have been part of the problem. "There's always an agency – the police, the council the safeguarding adults partnership, and all these ridiculous little groups with daft acronyms – there's so many of them that Fiona presumed one of them would stop what happened."

Put this together and you have a mass of contradictions. When it comes to social services, crime and anti-social behaviour, there is not enough public service provision to protect vulnerable people and too much of the state taking on what should be the responsibility of families and communities.

Criminal Record Bureau checks and fear of litigation are accused of poisoning the voluntary spirit, yet when things go wrong, the complaint is that authorities should have done more. Children are not kept under control by their parents or kept wrapped in cotton wool. Civil liberties are under attack as never before, yet it was better when people ended up in court for kicking a football in the wrong place.

Perhaps the problem is not that we have the wrong picture, but that we are not careful enough to paint the background. Take the erosion of community. Green talks about when people used to chat on the streets, the same streets that are still filled with mainly settled residents. What changed? Too many things to mention. In many working-class communities, most of the men on one street would often have worked at the same place, giving them a common bond. Women used to be at home more often and their daytime conviviality helped build bridges between households. Other reasons are more banal: central heating and TV keeps people more glued to their sofa than before.

Start looking at it this way and you cease to see a "crisis" that can be fixed, and instead see a series of irreversible social changes which have up-sides and down-sides. The same is true when you look at young people. In many ways, they are more savvy, cosmopolitan and switched-on. It is harder for adults to get away with abusing them. That's good, but it also means they are cockier and think they're more grown up than they are, and it makes it harder for adults to know how to deal with them.

To much of the media and those in politics, this seems quasi-academic obfuscation. In a sense, they're right. Good politics is about finding the middle ground between ill-conceived quick fixes and the quietism that can follow the realisation that "It's more complicated than that".

If there is a real issue here which calls out for new thinking in politics, it is about the balancing of individual and state responsibility. The right has for years been parroting the simple message that the solution is to roll back the state. It is a solution attractive for its simplicity but which, if undertaken crudely, would surely do more harm than good. You only have the look at the American healthcare system to see that.

The left has been struggling to find a more sensible solution for years. New Labour grappled with the problem of welfare dependency from its first day in government. Now there is talking of "the enabling state" and the politics of "nudge".

But the choice is not between paternalism and libertarianism, because sometimes paternalism works, and sometimes it is counter-productive. There is no short cut to working out which is which, and building policy accordingly.

That's why all sides can sound right even as they contradict one another. We should give communities more control over themselves but also the support they need to do that. We need to protect children but also refrain from ill-judged protection that erodes trust and the civic sphere.

Apart from seeing more clearly what the reaction to the Pilkington inquest has distorted, we also need to look at what it has ignored: how disabled people are treated. The media put the anti-social behaviour centrestage, following the lead of the inquest; the jury was not asked about the role that Herdwick disability played in events.

Again, we need to keep a sense of perspective. Green's youth club is opposite Herdwick old school, Dorothy Goodman. Children from that school, and adults from a Mencap project, often use the club's facilities and so the children come to have an understanding of what it means to be disabled, which previous generations lacked.

Yet problems persist and awareness of the problem of hate crime against the disabled lags behind that of homophobic and racist crime, which would never be described as anti-social behaviour. "The police have only collected data on disability hate crime and disability hate incidents since April last year," says Ruth Scott, the head of policy at the disability charity Scope. There will be no centrally collected data until spring 2010 at the earliest.

But Mark Golding, the chief executive of Mencap, can point to research which suggests that "nearly 90 per cent of people with disabilities will describe having been bullied and 30 per cent physically assaulted within a relatively recent period".

Golding and Scott agree that such maltreatment is too often seen as part of having a disability. Scott says: "Particularly with people with learning disabilities, there's a tendency to define them as vulnerable people and almost to suggest that therefore people will be nasty to them or attack them."

The Pilkington inquest could have been a pivotal moment in putting these issues at the forefront of public concern. But such is the fixation with anti-social behaviour that the moment passed. If Barwell had to be reduced to a symbol, how much better would it have been if it had come to stand for an awakening of awareness into disability hate crime, instead of becoming yet another misleading symbol for the cliché of youth running out of control.

The writer is the author of Welcome to Everytown: A Journey into the English Mind, published by Granta