Nightmare in Nappy Valley

When a hostel for violent ex-offenders, some of them paedophiles, is sited in a suburban street opposite a playground, liberal ideals are the first casualty. Peter Stanford meets the people of Balham, who are preparing to fight this threat to their child-centred community
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The Independent Online

Estate agents, off the record, call them places where people go to breed. Other, gentler souls prefer to label them Nappy Valleys, but they are talking about the same thing - those leafy, outlying parts of big cities where the terraces of houses are stuffed with young professional couples who have exchanged loft apartments and urban chic for small children and a garden in which to keep lumps of red plastic from the Early Learning Centre.

Estate agents, off the record, call them places where people go to breed. Other, gentler souls prefer to label them Nappy Valleys, but they are talking about the same thing - those leafy, outlying parts of big cities where the terraces of houses are stuffed with young professional couples who have exchanged loft apartments and urban chic for small children and a garden in which to keep lumps of red plastic from the Early Learning Centre.

The grids of south London streets radiating out from Tooting Common fit the bill perfectly. The tell-tale signs are all there - rows of BMW estate cars, a buzz of activity around 3.30pm when the schools empty out. This is a well-established retreat for those families who have outgrown flats in fashionable Clapham or Battersea further north. They are happy to pay up to £600,000 for four-bedroom houses in an area which even boasts that object of many a worried parent's dreams - one of London's few outposts of the high-achieving Girls Public Day School Trust network. Streatham Hill and Clapham High School is just off the principal approach to the Common, Bedford Hill.

This revered academic hothouse is soon to have a new neighbour with a much more dubious record, however. Brownlow House, a large Victorian, double-fronted house on the corner of Bedford Hill and Hillbury Road that was once a bail hostel, has been earmarked as a residential centre for serious offenders after their release from prison or hospital. Run by the Langley House Trust, a Christian charity, on behalf of the Home Office, it will accommodate up to 12 people at a time. All will have a history of violent crime, some involving children.

Standing on the pavement outside the property, it is tempting to think that this plan is a rather unpleasant joke being played by someone in the Home Office's Dangerous Offenders' Unit. Where, they might have asked, would the most offensive place be to locate a hostel for paedophiles? How about opposite a busy children's playground, within spitting distance of an open air lido in one direction and an indoor pool in the other, and slap bang in the middle of an area with, it is estimated, over 50 nurseries or schools within a two-mile radius, and some 6,000 children under five within just one mile.

But it is no joke, as must rapidly be becoming clear to the mandarins who managed to keep this scheme a secret until just a month before the scheduled arrival of Brownlow House's first two residents, both of them the subject of public protection orders (the method usually employed in the case of convicted paedophiles). Once local people heard the news, they mobilised at once. It has been a classic middle-England campaign, as befits its backdrop - an action group, a petition, nightly candle-lit vigils outside the property, questions in the House of Commons and a peaceful march this Sunday from Balham Library to Tooting Common.

Behind this show of reasonableness, however, some tempers are clearly straining, with the Langley House Trust insisting that the plan "is not negotiable". Stacey Johnston has been a regular at the vigil. She moved into Hillbury Road with her three children, aged seven, five and three, just six months ago and now finds herself facing the prospect of living two doors down from a hostel for paedophiles. "They will be able to look straight into my garden. We came here because it was a nice place to raise children, but now I'm having nightmares. Paedophiles and children just don't mix." The increasing militancy in her voice jars with the sound of children playing in the background. "If the authorities thought this was a nice, well-to-do area and everyone would be very reasonable and take all of this calmly, then they're wrong. No way are we going to say 'welcome'."

Stacey is articulating a popular suspicion, namely that the Home Office hit upon the well-heeled environs of Bedford Hill because they believed that its well-heeled community of barristers, journalists and university lecturers would be too concerned about appearing liberal to parade their intolerance. Previous schemes to house paedophiles who have served their sentences have, after all, caused uproar in more down-at-heel settings. Plans to build accommodation next to Nottingham Prison prompted the locals to set up road blocks with caravans and threaten a terrible vengeance. In Portsmouth, the suspicion that there were child sex offenders living in the midst of the rundown Paulsgrove Estate brought vigilantes onto the street brandishing bricks and sticks.

Another Langley House hostel was planned to open at the same time as Brownlow House, reportedly in Peckham, but the plans are now said to have been shelved because it was near the home of the murdered schoolboy Damilola Taylor. That community was evidently judged to have suffered enough. Locals around Tooting Common claim that, though their area is more affluent than Peckham, the same argument could be made about them. For juxtaposed alongside the expensive properties and cosy family cocoon of the side streets is another world in the green open spaces at night. Bedford Hill itself has long been a red light district - albeit plying a much reduced trade since a police campaign - while the thickets on the Common are popular with cottagers.

"We are fundamentally a tolerant community," says one of the protest organisers Sarah Wrixon, a PR consultant who lives in a house in Abbotswood Road, located directly off the Common. "We co-exist pretty peacefully with the prostitutes and cottagers. They don't bother us and we don't bother them. And then there are some 30 halfway houses located round here for people with mental health problems and alcohol dependency. But our tolerance does have a limit. We feel that we are already doing enough."

Wrixon's determination that the campaign against the hostel should not imitate some of the worst excesses prompted by last summer's News of the World "name and shame" campaign against paedophiles is currently holding sway. It has enabled her to put together a broadly-based coalition with the private support of local senior police officers and magistrates. "The wildest our vigils get is when a passing motorist honks his horn, and we are asking people who come on our march on Sunday not to put inflammatory messages on their placards. We are about something positive - protecting our children."

Support for the campaign is far from universal, but locals who sniff an ever-so-polite witch-hunt are reluctant to speak out publicly. One mother of four small children, coming out of her front gate in Cloudesdale Road, parallel to Bedford Hill, didn't want to give her name but did share her unease. "We have all chosen to live in London with all its attendant risks, and so any responsible parent always knows where their small children are. I never take my eyes off mine. So how is this an increased risk? These people have to live somewhere and, with decent supervision, I can live with them round the corner. I wouldn't choose it, but that's how it goes in a city. Anyway, statistically the greatest risk to children here, as anywhere, is from their own parents. I suspect what the residents are all really worried about is the effect the hostel might have on property prices."

Another - again nameless - woman, pushing her buggy on the other side of the Common, candidly admits her own double standards. "I was handed the petition in the local launderette and the part of me that is a mother wanted to sign, but the part that realises that everyone in society has to bear some responsibility for our neighbours thought, 'don't be so intolerant'. In the end I copped out. I signed a false name."

What alternative, she asks, are the protesters offering? Some talk of "a big house in the country", or longer sentences, or anywhere but Tooting Common. Sarah Wrixon realises the danger in appearing to be a "Nimby" - Not In My Back Yard. "I think what we need to know, what the government needs to demonstrate, is whether there is any evidence that paedophiles can be 'cured' by living in such supervised environments. So far we have not found any, in which case we have to ask, what is the point of them?"

Those who work with child sex offenders would suggest that such hostels do have a purpose, because while they cannot "cure" paedophiliac inclinations, they can at least enable those who have them to learn how to control themselves better. When people are in treatment, they are being reminded of the consequences of their actions.

The alternative, in the case of the planned residents of Brownlow House, would be bed and breakfast accommodation and much less supervision. Faced by the choice of letting these dangerous offenders roam free, or having them placed in an environment which will supervise them and help them confront their illness, then most parents would, very probably, choose the latter. The only question then is location, location, location.

The Home Office is right to say that no community is going to roll out the red carpet for such hostels, but it might just pause to ask whether Nappy Valleys are the best place for them. The presence of such a disproportionately high percentage of children seems to cut across any therapeutic intent in the work that goes on within their walls. Perhaps paedophiles themselves are not well served by this plan.

As I headed home, I couldn't help but sympathise with the local argument that this is an area that already shoulders its burden of society's misfits. Those who are planning this hostel are, I fear, putting too much faith in what they hope will be the troubled consciences of local, liberal-minded middle-class parents. Men stopping at the end of your road to buy sex is certainly unpleasant, but it is possible, in a permissive culture, rationally to ignore it. But when it is your child that may be at risk, then logic goes out of the window.

"You must not under-estimate the inherent aggression of bland people if their children are under threat," says Fenella Lindsell, a yoga teacher with three children who lives in Fontenoy Road, 50 yards from the hostel. "If this scheme is pushed through despite local objections, something very unpleasant could happen. I have a strong feeling of an undercurrent of aggression that will not be held back by any middle-class reticence."