'Crimethorpe' turns back the tide

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The Independent Online

For nearly a century, Grimethorpe was known for its pit, its musicians and an evocative south Yorkshire name. Now, instead, it is famous for having no mines, only a world-renowned brass band whose players prefer to live somewhere other than Grimethorpe.

For nearly a century, Grimethorpe was known for its pit, its musicians and an evocative south Yorkshire name. Now, instead, it is famous for having no mines, only a world-renowned brass band whose players prefer to live somewhere other than Grimethorpe.

Thanks partly to its fictional appearance in the film Brassed Off, the village has become a national symbol of the devastation that swept through the coalfields in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was left jobless and broken, struggling to contain the rising levels of depression and crime.

Yet last night the villagers proved that this image too is out of date, when it beat off competition from 155,000 towns and villages to win an award more closely associated with suburban respectability than boarded-up council houses.

At a ceremony in Nottingham, Grimethorpe received an award from the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, for running the best neighbourhood watch scheme in Britain. It was described by the judges as "an outstanding example of a project that integrates the whole community from youngest to eldest with a common purpose". Mr Straw said: "The people of Grimethorpe have shown what can be achieved when local people get together to help bring down crime."

The average household income in Grimethorpe is only £8,000 a year, most of which comes from benefits, and the neighbourhood watch team meets on a Tuesday morning because no committee member has a job.

The pits, which had run for 100 years, shut in 1993. Most of the community was hit but the end of work was barely the half of it. There was nowhere to turn; across South Yorkshire 160,000 workers lost jobs in the coal, steel and engineering industries leaving a legacy that touches everyone in the village.

By 1995 unemployment had hit 33 per cent and 50 per cent of the population was classed as long-term incapacitated through illness. Drugs, burglary and car crimes were rife and unlicensed motor cyclists raised merry hell for residents.

The neighbourhood watch was set up in 1995 by Danny Gillespie and Bob Eeles, both former miners. Mr Gillespie, a miner for 36 years, retired with ill health when the mines closed. "I was in shock for six months," he said. "We just sat in our houses vegetating. Thatcher didn't just close the mines, she closed the villages. Our lives went with them. I'm afraid that bitterness will remain forever."

But while the anger remains, Grimethorpe has shown that something can be done about the crime. The neighbourhood watch team first tentatively improved relations between the community and the police, which had been fractured by the miners' strike. Security lights have been installed for every elderly person and funds have been raised for an ECG machine at the local surgery. "The future is much more positive," said Mr Gillespie. "We can see a bit of sunshine over the hill. We're doing everything we can to make people want to come back and live here. That will bring jobs."

Other things are changing too. A gleaming new £9.5m road, described locally as "the tunnel that leads from Colditz", has opened up Grimethorpe to the M1 and A1 and job opportunities further afield. Somehow it seems appropriate that this road runs through the old colliery landscape which is still pockmarked with spoil heaps. Regeneration bodies are clambering over each other to invest and the first private housing development is on its way.

Mr Gillespie and his colleagues cleared away derelict land and in its place built a playgroup and youth club. The scheme quickly became a community association to which every household belongs and it has sought to tackle social problems. Youngsters are given activities to keep them from crime, funding has been raised for sports teams, a drum majorette group has been set up and 50 children have recently passed the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme.

Crime has dropped by 23 per cent and car crime is down by 44 per cent on 1999. The last block of the hated Seaside Estate, once notorious for crime and drug abuse, will shortly be pulled down. The White City area, once characterised by boarded up former Coal Board properties, is being restored.

The difference can be seen at the mothers' and toddlers' club set up by the neighbourhood watch team five years ago. Children, who would otherwise be watching TV or, as one person said, "roaming the streets and throwing rocks at one another", are now playing games with one another.

Police have also noticed a change. And yet everyone is aware that there has been no quick fix and that they are in for the long haul. Drugs remain a major issue. One of the village's last shops, a grocer's that had been in the same family for 90 years, shut down two weeks ago, and there is no bank.

Even the colliery band that inspired the film Brassed Off is no longer quite what it seems: it is sponsorship by the old foe RJB Mining that keeps it going and only a few players are ex-miners. Just one player lives in Grimethorpe.

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