Urban nightmares disturb the slumber of Metroland

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The Independent Online
THE TERRIFIED youth was chased from the wine bar by a gang. He managed only to get across the road before he was trapped on a railway bridge. He was kicked and punched before his tormentors lifted him over a wall and dropped him on to the electrified tracks below. His corpse was later found battered and electrocuted. He died on his 18th birthday.

Another everyday occurrence in Moss Side, perhaps? No: this time it was Northwood, a well-to-do suburb on the borders of north-west London and Hertfordshire. For as long as its citizens can remember, Northwood has been the epitome of the cosy world of Range Rovers, golf clubs and expensive private schools that make up suburbia. It is the sort of place immortalised by Sir John Betjeman, in his paeans to "Metroland".

But Betjeman's dream turned sour that night on the railway track. The violence that was part of the lives of less well-off people in dangerous places like Wembley and Kilburn had finally arrived on the doorsteps of the middle classes.

Drunkenness, drug addiction and broken marriages are making their mark, too, in suburbia. How big an impact was made clear last week when the Bishop of Guildford said the facade of prosperity hid growing social problems, and reports emerged of violence encroaching on the London suburbs.

Not so very long ago, crime in suburbs like Northwood was a relatively harmless affair. But now there is an abiding sense that all is not well. The facts bear out people's misgivings. The burglary rate - 40 a month - is among the highest in the police area. There are 50 violent incidents a month, including domestic crime which is vastly under-reported, according to a recent crime audit. More than half the people arrested for crimes are 25 or younger. The rate of criminal damage is well above the London average.

Helen Johnston has lived in the area for 24 years and is in no doubt that it has "gone down". "I don't feel comfortable any more walking around at night and I would never ride the train alone now."

Others talk of "a menacing atmosphere", and blame "rowdies and thugs" or "underage drinking". But the teenagers have their own problems. For 16-year-old Kevin Wattom, Northwood is seriously dull. "It's very boring around here. I am a skater but the nearest facility is miles away. There is nothing for young people to do except hang around the Tube station and drink."

Boredom means trouble. Criminal damage, the classic crime of idle teenagers, is commonplace in Northwood. "The windows at my house and my neighbours' were smashed by some kids," said Kevin.

However, the ennui felt by the youngsters elicits little sympathy from their elders. Last week, more than 80 people attended a meeting to discuss proposals for a new youth centre. Feelings ran high and most of the adults were opposed to the scheme, fearing that assaults and vandalism will only spiral if the club gets the go-ahead.

"There's a fair amount of nimbyism," said Chief Inspector Ken Wise, Northwood's senior police officer, who backs the scheme. "But that's only part of it. There is still a good community spirit and an active Neighbourhood Watch. If there is a group of yobbos hanging around, people won't indulge them. They are less tolerant than in other areas."

The most common serious crime in Northwood is residential burglary, he said. The large detached houses are irresistible to house breakers. Ironically, said Ch Insp Wise, the road and rail links to London that attract residents also make it an easily accessible "honey pot" for burglars.

At the Northwood Old Folks Association, the local pensioners have witnessed Northwood's transformation from farmland into a full-fledged dormitory suburb. Like elderly people everywhere, they sentimentalise the past but some have good reason. Several have been mugged and others have been targeted by con artists.

Kitty Rogers moved there in 1934, but it is no longer the same place. She had recently been robbed by a gang of young girls and admitted that she was petrified. "I keep all the doors locked. I'm a prisoner in my own home," she said.

But 82-year-old Dennis Spruels is more sanguine. "Northwood is still not a bad place. There's a lot worse." Likewise, Rabbi Andrew Goldstein of the Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue said the main complaint of his congregation was not the arrival of urban dystopia but the state of the London Underground. "When the trains work, life in suburbia can still be good," he said.