Voices from the other England: Away from the riots, what is life like on Britain's council estates? Kathy Marks finds apprehension, hope and despair

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The Independent Online
Thorntree Estate, east Middlesbrough. A chill wind whistles along the Greenway, the main thoroughfare, whipping up the litter that lines the pavements and grass verges. On the horizon, blue smoke rises from the chimney stacks of the ICI complex at Billingham, wafting east towards the Cleveland hills.

Thorntree, three miles outside the town and home to 5,000 people, looks unremarkable. Street after street of red-brick family houses, broken only by the occasional row of steel-framed pre- fabs. Around Middlesbrough, however, its reputation precedes it. In the words of one resident: 'Neighbourhood Watch is no use round here. Say you've got X watching Y's house. If Y goes on holiday, X does over his house.'

The JobCentre on the estate is light and airy, in a renovated block housing medical and advice facilities above a row of shops. Once again, however, there are no vacancies for Tracy Grafton, 21, who has been on the dole since losing her cleaning job with Middlesbrough council a year ago.

'I've put in for a job in Whitby. I don't wanna leave but I need the work. I had my own flat till the bills all piled up. I live all over now, stay with friends.

'People think this is a bad estate but it's not. You have to live here to find out. The people are dead friendly. They're smashing.

'But there's nowt to do when you're on the dole. The only thing to look forward to is signing on. We sit round each other's houses or go to the pub if we can afford it.

'Once in a blue moon we go nightclubbing. We go out as a group of lasses, have a laugh and a mess around. I was going out with a lad for two years. He got put away for burglary and twocs (stolen cars), he's on the run now.

'I watch a lot of telly - EastEnders, Neighbours, Eldorado. I like the cinema, but it's embarrassing showing your dole card. That Arnold Schwarzenegger, he's lovely. I wouldn't mind doing the splits with him.

'I'm in court tomorrow for shoplifting. That's the effect it's had on me, having no money. I pinched a jumper, went out of town to Stockton. I was unlucky, I got caught. I'll never do it again. If I do, I hope I don't get caught.

'I need a job, me, I really do. They've got to understand that people come out of school without qualifications. They should cater for unskilled people, thick people. School's a load of shite.

'If you tell people you're from Thorntree, they think you're riff- raff. I met a bloke recently. When I told him where I was from, he said: 'Can you get us a video cheap?' Some folk think they're better than you 'cos they've got a job and a big posh house. They make me sick.

'The lads round here, they go from one lass to another. Most of them think once they've got you, you'll do what you're told. But no one tells me what to do. They stick up for you though, the lads, they wouldn't let anyone hurt you.

'A lot of the girls have kids at 15 and 16. Then they fall out with their boyfriends, find another bloke and have another bairn. We'll all be interbred on Thorntree in a few years.'

THORNTREE lies in the middle of three square miles of uninterrupted council housing; a mini-town of 30,000 people. It was Middlesbrough's first big post- war development, but a dozen overlapping estates sprouted around it to house workers in the shipbuilding, steel and chemicals industries along the River Tees.

The estate, a labyrinthine network of largely treeless avenues, many of them finishing in abrupt dead ends, is easy to get lost in. At night, the streets are poorly lit and take on a more forbidding air. Locals know that certain pockets are best avoided.

This is Thorntree, but it could be Meadow Well in Newcastle, Hartcliffe in Bristol or any of the council estates which achieved notoriety this summer and last when riots erupted on their streets. There have been no riots on Thorntree. On Brambles Farm, an adjacent estate, there was a minor disturbance last summer: gangs of youths threw bricks at police and set a car on fire after a teenager was arrested.

Outwardly, Thorntree does not look particularly deprived. The houses are mainly pleasant and solid, the shops adequate. For restaurants and cinemas, a trip into town is necessary. There is only one pub; most people drink in social and working men's clubs on neighbouring estates such as Cargo Fleet and North Ormesby, a walk or short bus trip away.

Ron Stevens, 67, is one of Thorntree's original residents. He and his wife Audrey moved into their house soon after the estate was built in 1947.

'It was absolutely glorious then, away from all the works and grime. We had some beautiful green spaces and there wasn't the litter you get now.

'The people round here, the majority of them are great. I've many friends here. When I go out, my wife doesn't know when she'll see me again because I have a good natter with everyone.

'You've got a bit of a rough element moving in now, but you have to keep on top of them. I don't stand for any nonsense.

'People don't want to report crimes because they're frightened of repercussions. Anyway, the response from the police is scandalous. Some lads got into a house that's boarded up and were smashing things up. The police took nearly two hours to arrive. They'd all gone by then.

'But the police have got a thankless job. A community bobby got beat up one night round here. He's out of the force now, he lost the use of one of his arms.

'The riots? I think a lot of it comes from the television, the violent films they watch. Sure, it could happen here. The lads hear about trouble elsewhere then they think they'll do the same. People often come in here from other estates and cause bother. It's a miniature gang warfare-type thing.

'I was made redundant 10 years ago, I'd been 23 years at the shipyard at South Bank. I tried to get more work but there was nothing on the go. Since then I've kept myself active. I started an indoor bowls club at the community centre three years ago, it's taken off fantastic.

'Friday is our night out. The wife likes dancing, we go with two friends from over the road to the Cargo Fleet Club. There's bingo and raffles. I'm not a great drinker. Three pints is fine. The town I detest, the pushing and shoving.

'I love driving but I had to get rid of the car, I couldn't afford to keep it running. We used to travel all over - Whitby bay, Bridlington, the Yorkshire Moors on a Sunday afternoon.'

Cleveland, Middlesbrough's county, boomed until the mid-1970s; over the following decade, 55,000 manufacturing jobs were lost. On Thorntree, an almost wholly white estate, the official male unemployment rate is 35 per cent; locals say the true figure is much higher. More than 80 per cent of tenants receive housing benefit and most young people are unqualified; of 140 students who left a local school, Keldhome, in 1991, 28 students had one or more GCSEs at grades equivalent to the former O level.

In the run-down Thorntree pub, a dozen men sit over lunchtime pints. The television is blaring. The pub is notorious locally as a centre for drug-dealing and receiving stolen goods. Strangers receive long, hard looks. The atmosphere is intimidating.

Ernie Probert, 51, lives in one of the two tower blocks on the estate. He has been unemployed since 1978.

'I don't come in the pub often, it makes me bloody nervous. I've lived on Thorntree for 14 years but I'm still not accepted by the folk that were born here. They're very close-knit families and they don't like strangers.

'I go down the JobCentre every day but there's never anything for me. The walk breaks the monotony. I've done just about every job going - packer, milkman, processor at ICI. But I'm past the age now. No one will look at me.

'I got cheesed off and did an ET (employment training) course two years ago, trained as a warehouse man in Stockton. But they couldn't give me a job at the end of it. If they had, I'd 've been pounds 10 a week worse off. To be honest with you, I don't think I'll work again.

'I just sit in my flat all day, go for the odd walk. I walk into town sometimes. Takes about 50 minutes. Can't afford the bus fare, it's pounds 1.20 return. I don't really knock about with anyone. All I've got is the TV. I read the Star, the odd book. My last holiday was 1977, Ostend.

'We got divorced in 1974. I don't go after women. How could I have a girlfriend? Where could I take her? Look at the way I'm dressed.

'All I can look forward to is payday and me next pint. Then it's a two-week wait until the next one. I feel like bloody scum, like I've been put on the shelf and forgot about. Scroungers off the country, that's what we're called. We're not scroungers. We're human like everyone else.

'I go out and I can't buy a round. I feel guilty when I see my daughters because I can't give much to the grandkids. It all wears up on you. It's like being an outcast. You think, what the hell am I here for? As far as I'm concerned, I don't have a life. What use am I, sitting up there on my own? I'm no use to anyone.

'It's very rare I go out at night, you daren't really. I've been mugged twice. I only go out on paydays. Then I've had that much to drink I don't care.

'Young kids round here, they come out of school with no job to go to. They want money - they break into somewhere. They want a kick - they pinch a car and have a joyride. They get bored - they smash the place up and have a go at the police.

'They want some excitement, they're trying to prove something. Say you don't like what the Government's doing to this country. You can't rebel against that so you rebel against the nearest thing you can.'

THE playground in Thorntree Park is deserted except for George Leary, keeping a watchful eye on his three-year-old grand- daughter Gina. The swings are covered in graffiti. The new five- a-side football pitch in the park is hardly used. Mr Leary, 45, a wharf operator, has just come off shift at the Tees Dock.

'I've lived here for 25 years and I like the people in the main. They say what they think. You have to stand up to them. If they're scared of you, you don't get trouble.

'I know a lot of bent people, a lot of rogues. You can get anything you want knock-off. It's the poor robbing the poor. The gear turns up at car-boot sales, it's all stuff that can't be traced.

'It's getting rougher. This playground, it used to be full of people. They've been scared off by the thugs that hang around.

'You get the five and six-year- olds trying it on now. I've seen them sitting on the roundabout down there chucking bricks at cars and their parents don't seem to care. There's no discipline at home and the teachers daren't smack 'em any more.

'I've had three cars stolen. I went after one with a baseball bat and put him in hospital. Now they tell me I could get done for GBH.

'The lad next door had his lawnmower pinched three weeks ago. The police virtually accused him of doing an insurance job.

'The authorities are pushing people into a situation of anarchy. People don't see justice being done. Take the riots. A lot of it has to do with frustration. They're not just thugs doing it. They're ordinary people who see something wrong going on.

'We've got friends on the estate but we keep to ourselves mainly. I play badminton, go running. I like the odd pint down the Brambles Farm Social Club. The wife, Val, she goes to bingo with the girls most nights.'

JANICE Allison, 33, surveys the geraniums and roses in her large, neat back garden in Carisbrooke Avenue. The fence at the back has been stolen twice. She has given up replacing

the broken windows in the shed.

The sitting room in the three- bedroom red-brick house that she shares with her mother and son Lee, 12, has recently been redecorated to match the pink furniture. The walls are covered in framed family photographs; she has seven brothers and sisters.

'I'd love to have my own house and a car but I can't afford it at the moment. You just have to be happy the way you are, take what's going until something better comes along.

'I'd buy this house but it's me mum's. She thinks if anything goes wrong, she'd have to pay for the repairs herself. Anyway, you can't sell a house round here. We've been in the house that long, we could get it for 10 grand. I've been saving up and doing it up bit by bit.

'I'm happy here. Better the devil you know than the devil you don't. I know what these are like round here. I get on with a lot of them.

'My mum, she's 78, she's scared to go out. She hates the motorbikes racing up and down. They make a terrible racket.

'I work in a crisp factory in Billingham, five hours a day. I like it, I get on with the girls. Mum looks after Lee while I work. Lots of people round here are one-parent families.

'I was courting for six years and then married for three months. He used to treat me bad. I thought he'd change but he didn't.

'I worry about Lee growing up round here. All you can do is drill it into him not to do certain things. A lot round here, they don't give a monkey's what their kids are up to.

'He's very good at school, but there's no jobs now anyway. As long as he does well and he's happy, that's all I want for him.

'I help two or three nights in the youth club; I like to see how the kids tick. Bob (her boss) would like me to do it full-time but I've told him I've not got it up here. I always go out on a Friday night drinking with my sister in town. I've been courting for five months and I go out with my fella on a Saturday and Sunday to the club in Ormesby Road, to the old- time dancing. I really love that.

'I do a lot of gardening and sewing, make my own clothes. We watch the soaps and that on telly, we like a nice weepy film. We get the Sun on a Saturday because it's got the week's telly in it. Tommy (a neighbour) brings the Gazette, the local paper, in on an evening. We don't do so bad; there are plenty worse off.'

NIGHT-TIME on Thorntree, 10pm. Youths stand around in disconsolate huddles outside the Beresford Buildings shops, swigging from beer cans. Small boys on bicycles do wheelies up and down the street. In Kellywine, an iron cage separates the merchandise from customers.

The youth club is closed for six weeks over the summer. Marco Bonji is 17, unemployed and bored.

'The club used to be packed but hardly anyone goes now. There was a gang there, they did some rapes and a murder last year. I knew some of 'em. They've been put away now but the place got a bad name.

'There's nowt to do round here. We just walk around all day, do circuits like, hang about the shops. The bobbies come up and take our names, just to hassle, we're not bothering no one. The bobbies are shithouse. They just want to get you down the station and bang you up.

'I was on a YTS but I gave it up. The bosses got on me nerves. I go down the dole shop but they all want over 21 or experience. I'd do anything, me.

'I like to get out. We play pool down the club, go to each other's houses. We're barred from the pub on account of putting the windows in when we was kids. The youth club does trips to Scarborough and that, but I never get to go. They're pissed off I set fire to the noticeboard.

Friday nights we go to Blazes, a rave club in town. It's all right. I like a few pints, me. I get drunk easy.

'You can get any drugs you like round here. Everyone smokes blow. A lot do other stuff - speed and that, E and that.

A bloke's flat got petrol- bombed down there, he's a dealer. There used to be a load of glue-sniffing.

'Last summer there were loads of twocs racing up and down, smashing into walls, turning over. You used to see the odd bobby chase now and again, it was a bit of excitement. There was three cars a night being stolen last year but they put some blokes away and it's quietened down now.

'I wouldn't live anywhere else. Everyone that walks past, you know who they are. Strangers stick out a mile. The Government should build us some leisure thing round here. Or a motorbike track, that'd be good.

'The girls round here are really tough, they're always doing us over. Some of them got knives. I'll be married with a couple of kids in a few years, on the full social. I can see it now.'