On the Ocean estate, no one except drug gangs is out after the sun goes down

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He is a well-built, fairly fit looking 39-year-old. Not the sort, you would think, to scare easily. But Dave only ventures out during daylight hours.

"I just wouldn't walk around here after dark unless I absolutely had to," he says beside the barricaded, graffiti-scarred, abandoned shops on the decaying Ocean estate in Tower Hamlets, east London. He sucks hard on a fast-disappearing roll-up, and shakes his head, before explaining an adult male's terror of the dark on the Ocean, one of Britain's largest housing estates.

"If you came here at night you would understand," he says. "There are gangs of 15- and 16-year-olds hanging out on every corner.

"I'm not a racist... " he continues, resorting to a common refrain on this estate where 60 per cent of the residents are now Bengali. "But the kids are mainly Asian and its hard to spot a white man after dark."

Small wonder that Dave wants a substantial slice of the £56.6m allocated to the Ocean by the Government yesterday - the biggest of seven awards to the country's poorest communities under the New Deal for Communities programme - spent on tackling the crime that has paralysed the community.

Tackling crime means tackling drugs. Everyone here agrees that the children hanging on street corners are on heroin - which arrived on the estate a decade ago - and that they steal to fund their habit.

Not that a crime crack down alone can put the Ocean on its feet. For poverty is endemic. More than half of the estate's 2,000 households have incomes of less than £10,000 a year; 65 per cent of families are on benefits; and male unemployment (34 per cent) is among the highest in London.

Intimidated, Dave stays in most nights, cooped up with his wife and four-year-old daughter in a tiny one-bedroom flat where the adults have to sleep on a settee in the living room so the child can have a room of her own. They have been languishing - like countless other Ocean families - on the local council transfer list for years. "The estate is just a dump," he concludes.

Down the road, Abdul Wakib, 43, a father of four, shares Dave's opinion, but that is hardly surprising. A survey carried out before the Ocean's bid for regeneration funds was launched, discovered that one-third of residents want to leave the Ocean if it cannot be turned around.

"More houses," he says without hesitation, when asked where the £56m ought to be spent. On an estate where 16 people crowd into three bedroom homes, Mr Wakib and his wife share a two bed-room house with their four children, aged three to ten. One of his three boys is handicapped and in a wheelchair. His sons share a double bed while his daughter has the single; all the children are cramped in one room.

It is depressing, he concedes. Every week he phones the council about a transfer. His son's disability means he has priority points but he has still been trying to move for seven years. He even engaged a lawyer to press his claim but got nowhere.

Despite the cramped conditions, he will not let his children play outside. It is too dangerous, he says. His windows, like his neighbours, are barred. Like Dave, he does not go out once the sun has gone down. At night, the family have to endure their doors and windows being rattled and banged by local children. "The estate is full of drug addicts," he says. "I just want to get out of here and to go and live somewhere peaceful.

Not everyone has been worn down this far. The announcement of the government money yesterday delighted community activists who have been campaigned for years for an integrated anti-poverty strategy to turn the Ocean around.

Tony Blair's brave pledge to wipe out poverty over the next decade is pinned to the wall of the local Tenants and Leaseholders Association. His words and strategy have given hope to Brenda Daley, who chairs the association. She claims that the problem with all previous anti-poverty strategies is that they focused on a single issue, such as housing or training.

There are proposals to demolish 17 of the 50-odd housing blocks on the estate and rebuild and refurbish. But the community's plans for government funds cover employment, environment, education, health and training. "You can give someone a new house," Ms Daley says, "but new houses quickly become old when there are no jobs and no wages to maintain them." For her, the attraction of the New Deal is its attempt to attack poverty from all angles.

Ms Daley, 58, was seven when she watched the first houses on the Ocean going up. It was 1949, and the post-war promise to the working classes of bombed-out east London was of houses fit for kings. She remembers how the Ocean used to be - "they were begging to get on this estate". That memory helps when it comes to dreams of how things could be.

It is not just the integrated approach that has sparked enthusiasm. There is also unprecedented local involvement. Everyone on the estate has been asked for their views on regeneration. "The crucial thing is that this is our scheme. Before, all we had was governments telling us what was good for us when we knew best what that was," Ms Daley says.

Like her vice-chairman Misbahur Khan, who is also co-ordinator of the local Bengali Community Resource Centre, Ms Daley talks of a community still worth saving. Mr Khan jokes that while £56m is hardly a drop in the Ocean, every penny is needed for the enormous task at hand. And while they meet over a keenly felt cultural divide, the community groups have worked hard together to put up a proposal the Government would buy.

Ms Daley says outsiders who recoil at the state of the housing and the graffiti on the walls miss the point. "They don't realise that we are good people living here and we deserve a chance."

The challenge now is to persuade the disillusioned - and the state of the streets and surveys suggest they are legion - that with £56m the Ocean can be turned around. The local activists' credibility mighty depend on that; the Government's credibility with its poorer core voters certainly will.

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