How the other half live: from Hackney to Winchester

Robert Hanks takes a trip from Hackney (dubbed by a survey the worst place to live in Britain) to Winchester (the best)
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The Independent Online

My own top Hackney moment - when I felt most keenly what it means to be a Hackney resident - came last year when the local authority's free newspaper slid through our letterbox with a gigantic, exuberant "100" occupying most of the front page. Underneath, in smaller type, was the explanation: "That's the number of crack-houses we've closed down this year!"

I don't know why that century stuck in my head; after almost 15 years in the borough, we have had plenty of other moments that could qualify.

There was the elderly inebriate woman screaming rape who I invited in off the street, and who threw up on our hall floor while I was calling the police. Or the time my father came to see us and had his car radio stolen during Christmas lunch. Or the incident last week when we were woken at one in the morning by the girl who looks after our rabbits when we're away, screaming and hammering at our door because a man was chasing her.

And always there are the little intrusions on peace of mind - the police helicopters, the 3am rowing junkies, the yellow signs asking for information on serious assaults, the queuing in the local chemist behind the bloke who's come in for his daily swig of methadone. And then there's the look in people's eyes when we tell them that our elder daughter is at a Hackney comprehensive: "So brave," they say, but the look is less admiration than pity and puzzlement.

So we were irritated but not much surprised when the Channel 4 programme Best and Worst Places to Live in the UK named Hackney as the worst this week. Meanwhile, the top spot went to the city of Winchester. And so I set off to revisit Winchester, and see if I could crack its secret.

The first thing to say about Winchester is that it is, obviously, lovely - packed with medieval architecture, so charming, with an abundance of pleasant little pubs and cafés, and cheerful, prosperous-looking pedestrians parading along its well-stocked and humanly proportioned high street. Quiet, too: after I'd been wandering around for a couple of hours, it occurred to me that I hadn't noticed a single siren.

On a bench down by the statue of King Alfred - whose capital this was a thousand years ago - I met Norman Staples who, apart from his time in the Army, has spent his entire 67 years here, working on the dustcarts and sweeping the streets. He could only say how much he loved the place. Outside the cathedral, perched on a tombstone, I came across Daniel, aged 17, and looking to me like a potentially disaffected youth, I asked: did he like living here? Yeah, he said, it was better than other places, the people were nicer, you don't get any trouble. His friend Rosie, 18, said: s'awright, she said, but not that easy to find work, night-life's crap, but she liked the countryside and, pressed, said she was planning to stay here the rest of her life.

Then I found Belinda and Sarah, ladies who were lunching. Belinda, who has lived outside the city for 23 years, complained about cliquey-ness. Sarah, a Londoner by birth but here 15 years, loved the beauty of the place, but found it smug and middle-class: "It's not a representation of Britain." She had stayed on after her divorce for the schools, but felt that in some way she had let her daughters down. Of course, she might feel that she was letting them down just as badly if she put them through Hackney schools; but I knew what she meant.

The problem with Channel 4's "objective statistics" was that the indicators used - education, crime, life expectancy, unemployment - were all, broadly speaking, socio-economic: the programme might have been more accurately titled "Where to Get Away from Poor People".

I don't live in "the worst place in Britain" because I like rubbing shoulders with people who have less money than me, or because I'm excited by its multicultural vibe; I live there because I can afford a reasonably sized house while making a living out of writing, because it contains a large number of people in congenially similar circumstances. But it's also the case that living in Hackney you discover something that you would never know in Winchester - something about how people with nothing in common, often living under intense pressure, financial and otherwise, in a grubby, overcrowded place can still manage to rub along together. And for all Winchester's good points, it's something worth knowing.

Winchester

* Population: 110,000

* Average house price: £280,000

* Average income: £22,120pa

* Life Expectancy: 80

* Crime (April 05 - March 06):

Violence against the person: 1,310

Robbery: 19

Burglary: 240

Theft of a motor vehicle: 115

* Education:

15-year-olds with 5 or more A* to C GCSE grades: 77.2%

15-year-olds with no passes at GCSE: 1.6%

* Environment:

Area of gardens: 23,970 sq m

Area of green space: 609,738 sq m

* Population:

Mostly white, middle-class

* Income support claimants: 1,540

* Child benefit claimants: 22,540

Hackney

* Population: 205,000

* Average house price: £430,000

* Average income: £25,000pa

* Life Expectancy: 78

* Reported crime between April 2005 and March 2006:

Violence against the person: 7,471

Robbery: 1,856

Burglary: 2,467

Theft of a motor vehicle: 1,749

* Education:

15 year olds with 5+ A* to C GCSE grades: 17.2 per cent

15 year olds with no passes at GCSE: 3.6 per cent

* Environment:

Hackney has 62 parks.

Area of gardens: 3,496.74m2

Area of greenspace: 4,602m2

* Lifestyle:

* Total of income support claimants: 18,920

* Child benefit claimants: 56,175

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