On Cameron's 'hug a hoodie' estate, Big Society has made little impact

The PM claims Wythenshawe is transformed. Jonathan Brown finds a familiar reality

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Indy Politics

Wythenshawe does not conform to the inner city stereotype of Middle England's nightmares. Its smart red-brick homes set behind privet hedges promised a better life for hard-working families from the slums of industrial Manchester between the wars.

It was here that David Cameron came in 2007 to launch a policy that will be for ever remembered by its "hug a hoodie" label – and by a photo opportunity hijacked when 17-year-old Ryan Florence, clad in a hoodie, made a shooting gesture behind the future Prime Minister's back.

Yet despite that unhappy experience Mr Cameron was remembering Manchester's most southerly suburb with affection yesterday. He challenged cynics to go to Wythenshawe. "It used to be ravaged by crime and drugs and graffiti. But local people opened a community hall and a gym. They got the kids off the streets. They cleaned up graffiti and kicked out the drug dealers. Of course, government can't legislate for this. But we can support the leadership that makes it happen," he said.

But not everyone is quite so upbeat about the recent past. Craig (not his real name) believes little has changed. A self-confessed former drug dealer and ex-gang member who admits having taken to the streets armed with a gun, the 18-year-old is still traumatised by the death of a friend who was stabbed to death last summer in a row over a mobile phone.

"I got the phone call from his mum in the morning saying he had died. Since then I have had sleepless nights and panic attacks," he recalls. "Things are not getting any easier. If you are in a different area and you see someone, it's 'let's bang him'. If a lad goes into another part of Wythenshawe he will get battered. The youngest kid I've seen with a sawn-off shotgun was 14. Guns are just as available as ever. If you have £200 and you want a 9mm pistol it is easy," he says.

Greg Davis, of the United Estates of Wythenshawe, is the community leader lionised by Mr Cameron in his conference speech. He has little time for the Labour party, which dominates the city's politics – despite its £800m investment in the area since 1998.

His social enterprises includes a gym, a chapel and a recording studio, and he too believes his project could provide a blueprint for solving the area's problems. "We have just had a Labour government that has done nothing, to the extent of the problem getting worse. At least with Cameron we might be in with a chance," he says.

"But there have been no new ways of thinking. No new schemes, no new projects on the horizon that even begins to dent our problem of gang culture, feral youth, the Asbo generation – whatever you want to call it," he says.

The 43-year-old former nightclub doorman takes hope from the fact that Wythenshawe did not turn on itself in the summer riots. The new figures of authority, he suggests, are not the police officer, teacher, vicar or the politician. Instead, they're the gym owner, the guy who runs the local security company and the boss of the taxi firm – all of whom are on his board.

He says guns, gangs and drugs are all symptoms of the same thing – an absence of opportunity. The problem for policymakers is that they do not live in the inner city. Solutions are imposed from the outside rather than cultivated from within, he argues.

"I am going to cling on to that phrase Big Society until someone makes it real," he says.

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