He visited in glory days of '97, but has Blair kept his vow to Aylesbury Estate?

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Indy Politics

The first big speech Tony Blair made when he first became Prime Minister was not to a gathering of triumphal Labour activists. Nor was it to a think-tank of trend-setters or opinion formers. It was to the tenants of one of the most run-down council estates in London, to those he called "the poorest people in our country [who] have been forgotten by government."

The first big speech Tony Blair made when he first became Prime Minister was not to a gathering of triumphal Labour activists. Nor was it to a think-tank of trend-setters or opinion formers. It was to the tenants of one of the most run-down council estates in London, to those he called "the poorest people in our country [who] have been forgotten by government."

The Aylesbury Estate, situated just south of Elephant and Castle in the London Borough of Southwark, is home to 7,500 people who live in grim concrete tower blocks, dogged by crime, poor health and lack of job opportunities. "I want that to change," the fresh-faced new Prime Minister told them. "There will be no forgotten people in the Britain I want to build."

Eight years on, after two terms of Blair government, I returned to that estate to ask how those "forgotten people" had fared.

At first encounter, the place is still intimidating and uninviting. Rank after rank of huge grey blocks fill an area the size of a small town. They are worn and unpainted. At ground level what meets the eye are row upon row of shabby garage doors, many unused or abandoned. Front doors are reached by concrete walkways at first-floor level which cross the streets to join one block to another.

"Tony Blair said he wouldn't forget the people living here; he didn't keep his promise," said Margot Lindsay, a librarian at University College London, who lives in Arklow House in the south-west corner of the estate. She has been secretary of the tenants association for the past three years.

"He set up a New Deal for Communities (NDC) scheme, which was designed to transfer the council flats to a housing association as a prelude to selling them off," says another community activist, Piers Corbyn, brother of the Old Labour MP, Jeremy Corbyn, "but the people here voted by a majority of 74 per cent for them to stay council houses. They feared that rents and service charges would rise and that their tenancies would become less secure. And, for the years since, we have had to fight a rearguard action with plan after plan. All are thinly disguised attempts to privatise the place."

The local council, once Labour-controlled but now under the Liberal Democrats, insists the local authority does not have the money to keep it council-owned. The plans have all involved varying degrees of demolition of the old blocks - plans that locals oppose because the apartments are more spacious than modern blocks and better-built and so more soundproof than contemporary builds.

"I feel quite angry," says Ms Lindsay. "I was a loyal Labour supporter, even giving them a few extra quid every month. But I'm deeply disillusioned now."

So is Piers Corbyn, who was for seven years an unpaid campaign organiser for Labour in Bermondsey and Southwark and who worked so tirelessly he was personally thanked by Mr Blair at a reception in Downing Street in 1998. He will not be returning there.

He got so fed up that he stood against the official Labour candidate in a local council election and was expelled from the party. The divide between New and Old Labour is still real in places like Aylesbury.

Not that you get any inkling of this if you look at the NDC website which trumpets the achievements of Tony Blair's 10-year programme. Launched in 1999, with £56m of government cash, it boasts more than 50 projects to improve the health, education, economic prospects, safety and "empowerment" of people on the estate.

The schemes have not had the desired effect. Norma Hibbet ought to be someone pleased with the results. She lives in Michael Faraday House, one of the red-brick blocks in the centre of the Sixties concrete sprawl, which have been reburbished under a measure known as the Decent Homes Standard.

Around five of the older blocks have been rewired, had new windows, had the brickwork cleaned and new garden fencing erected. Some have had their private gardens extended into what were communal lawns. "All of that was going to happen anyway," she says. It's the council, not the Blair initiative: "The NDC has very little to show for the £40,000 a month it spends in administration costs." She will be voting Conservative.

Someone else who ought to seem a natural Labour supporter is Martin Tarawally, a local school governor and Scout leader. "When Tony Blair came in 1997 we embraced the ideas he brought to the estate with open arms. But six years into a 10-year project nothing much has been done, apart from large fees being paid to architects and consultants," he says. He might vote Liberal Democrat in order to show his disapproval, but thinks he probably won't vote at all.

It is a common reaction in Aylesbury. "They're all lying bastards," says John Frances, locking painting equipment away in a cupboard off one of the walkways. He voted for Blair in 1997: "But never again."

Not far off 79 years of age, Violet Rogers sticks her head out of a bedroom window to join in. I tell her I'm from The Independent. "An independent. Good," she says. "I might vote for you then. I'm not voting for any of the others. They all want to turf me out of the place I've lived in for 33 years, and demolish the ramps and walkways that me and the other old ladies need to get out and around. And they want to charge me an extra £10 a week for a concierge I don't want."

Politicians locally are waking up to the degree of discontent. The MP for most of the estate is Harriet Harman. Last month she turned up at a meeting and said: "It is beyond belief that we are in this position - of so little being achieved after so long. I am bound by Tony Blair's promise to deliver for Aylesbury tenants. This has not been achieved ... The ballot-vote must be respected - with the whole estate staying with the council - we must find the money for that."

Violet Rogers is unconvinced. "That Harriet Harman is very nice but she's still part of this New Deal," she tells me. "If you're not standing I might vote for that Kilroy-Silk party."

At the end of Violet's floor is the stairwell she refuses to use. It's smelly. The rubbish chute is broken and it's a place where drug addicts leave their needles and foil. Across from it is another walkway where Norma Hibbet and Piers Corbyn are talking with a couple of other residents.

Rob Mitchell, 41, is a painter and decorator. He has never voted, he says. "£56m and we ain't got new lifts yet. We had a fellow round with a measuring tape in the area where the kids play football today. But we ain't got no lifts."

Mr Blair had promised more than lifts, I point out. His 1997 speech talked about jobs and chances for young people, getting single mothers into work, closing failing schools, tackling crime and drugs, helping young people with nothing to do, providing nursery education, encouraging social entrepreneurs. What about all of that? "Crime was rampant when Blair came here," concedes Norma. "It has greatly reduced." There has been much more policing, admits Piers Corbyn grudgingly. OK, apart from crime, the conversation goes, what has Tony Blair ever done for us?

"Well, the hospitals are functioning," says the other interlocutor, Barth Nwokolo, aged 66, "and the local school is good." Yes, says Norma, Surrey Square School has improved enormously. "But if they can't get the lifts right," said Rob, "what can they do?"

"Whatever you say about Tony Blair, there's no bombs in Britain now," says Barth. "He's sorted out the IRA. In fact there's so many things he has done for this country. Thank God for Tony Blair. Of course I'll still vote for Tony Blair."

"But what about Iraq?" splutters Piers Corbyn. "You have to talk about Britain," says Mr Nwokolo. "There's 100,000 people dead." "You have to talk about Britain."

The truth is, concludes Norma Hibbet, "we're still a forgotten people and very few on the estate will vote at all."

"I was at a meeting the other night," says Rob Mitchell. "They had plans on how to spend £250m. But no one mentioned lifts. I've heard all the spiel before. They're all lying fuckers and I'm not voting for anyone until they fix the lifts."

Eight years on: what has changed?

In 1997 at the Aylesbury Estate, Tony Blair said: "For 18 years the poorest people in our country have been forgotten by government. There will be no forgotten people in the Britain I want to build."

At the time, 17 per cent of households were registered unemployed, 59 per cent were on housing benefit and 78 per cent of 17-year-olds were not in full-time education. There were more lone parents on the estate than anywhere else in Southwark.

Education & employment

In 1997, Mr Blair said: "Behind the statistics lie households where three generations have never had a job. There are estates where the biggest employer is the drugs industry..."

In 1999, 17 per cent of Aylesbury residents gainedfive GCSE passes. In 2004, 40.3 per cent attained five or more GCSE passes.


In 2004, 28 per cent of residents felt "very unsafe"in or around the area after dark. The crime rate in 2002 was 408 crimes per 1,000 residents, compared with 171 for Southwark. Vehicle crime is almost double the Southwark average (57.4 per 1,000, compared with 29.8). Twenty six per cent of all crime is committed by 10 to 17-year-old males, compared with Southwark's 20 per cent.


Mr Blair said: "For a generation of young men, little has come to replace the manufacturing jobs that have been lost. For part of a generation of young women, early pregnancies and the absence of a reliable father almost guarantee a life of poverty."

Aylesbury has mortality rates 33 per cent above the national average for both children and adults, and high rates of teenage pregnancy and abortion.