Paul Vallely: Hope can rise amid violence and squalor

Many of those whom politicians characterise as feckless lumps are using huge amounts of energy just holding their life together


There are two places in which we could begin. Choose whichever you prefer, according to your prejudice.

There are two places in which we could begin. Choose whichever you prefer, according to your prejudice.

First, let me recall a block of flats where the traditional wooden doors have been replaced by solid sheets of metal. They are covered in graffiti. Some have scorch marks on them where people have tried to set fire to them. Windows are broken or boarded up. Rubbish is strewn in the corridors, as it is in the streets outside.

The door is opened by a gaunt youth with sunken cheeks and glazed eyes. In his hand he carries a large wooden stake. It is nothing personal. It is just the elementary precaution that a heroin addict takes when he answers a knock at his front door at the top of a tenement block in one of Britain's poorest housing estates. Only the elderly chap from the Salvation Army beside me prevents me from losing my nerve. He has come to distribute the past-their-sell-by-date meals he has cadged from the manager at the local Marks & Spencer food hall.

Inside, the walls are marbled with damp patches. The carpet is of grubby nylon. In the corner stands a guitar with no strings. Four young men are slumped on collapsing armchairs, watching daytime TV as if hypnotised. The effect of that morning's heroin fix is slowly wearing off. We begin a halting conversation, with me asking questions, and them offering listless answers, until finally I ask how could life have been better for them?

"Why say? No one will listen to what I think," said the youngest junkie, without removing his eyes from the screen. If there were jobs available? "That might be all right for the kids. But it's too late for me now. I'm a no-hoper." He was aged 23.

But let me offer you an alternative. The scene is a badly lit hall in a community centre. A group of poorly dressed women, their pallid skin betraying years of tinned spaghetti and white bread, are setting up stall on the formica tables. They have a cash box and a neatly ruled exercise book full of names and columns of figures.

This is the local credit union. It had, when I visited, been going for three years, ever since a couple of housewives got together to discuss what could be done about the loan sharks who preyed upon those in debt on their estate. Two people being chased by the extortionate moneylenders had just committed suicide. People were regularly having their kneecaps smashed by the collectors' hoods.

So the women, with the help of a nun who lived on the estate, set about forming a credit union - a mutual saving enterprise that makes loans to those whom building societies condemn as uncreditworthy. Which meant almost everyone locally, since just having an address on this particular estate was enough to get you blacklisted for credit, regardless of your personal circumstances.

"It's been a great success," one of the women told me. "You can borrow £100 and repay a total of only £101.70 compared with the £200 a loan shark would demand," she said. "In our third year, we now have 550 members, and last year lent out £62,000, mostly to people wanting to buy second-hand cookers, fridges or furniture."

Just as importantly, the union had given people a sense of gaining some control over their lives and had created a new sense of community on the estate. By which I don't mean some sentimental old East End, "Knees Up Mother Brown", were-all-all-in-this-together Blitz mentality, but rather the beginnings of the friendships which common activity engenders.

These two images of what we have come to call "sink estates" are, of course, from the same place. It happened to be in Glasgow, but over the past decade, I have seen similar scenes - of both despair and hope - in housing schemes in Leeds, Manchester, London, as well as in estates on the fringes of well-to-do places like Bath and Oxford, which have become a dumping ground for the local council's problem families.

The notorious Five Estates area of Peckham, where the death of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor took place this week, will be no different. The media have painted a grim picture of the place: a crime-ridden, damp, vermin-infested hell-hole of men with pit-bull terriers, where local residents dump their unwanted cookers and other detritus in the street without further thought, where publicly-paid-for murals are defaced with racist graffiti, where dealers sell crack to children in broad daylight, and where even the security cameras have been stolen.

Such truth is not the whole truth. There will be another side to life on the Peckham estates, too, harder to see, almost invisible to the casual visitor, but here, too, alongside those images of bleakness, there will be signs of hope for those who have eyes to see them.

What has become clear to me over the years, in visits to such places - whether Easterhouse in Glasgow or Granton in Edinburgh, Grove Hill in Teesside or Blackbird Leys in Oxford, Kirkby near Liverpool or Wythenshawe in Manchester - is that a number of factors combine to create the difference between a life that is tolerable and one that can merely be borne. Some of them, of course, are out of the control of the residents.

"It's up to government to provide decent benefit levels on peripheral estates where the market won't bring jobs. And it's up to the local authority to monitor the quality of housing and schools. Ordinary people are often served poorly at these levels," says Bob Holman, a former professor of social work who gave up the academic life to become an unpaid neighbourhood worker on an estate in Bath and now in Glasgow.

Policing can make a difference, too. For years, the Manchester police adopted a policy of containment in estates such as Adswood, where drug-dealing was open on the streets; then the police became much more interventionist. "Friendly and visible policing is essential to making life tolerable," says Jim Hewitt, a church community worker on the Blackbird Leys estate, near Cowley.

But whatever the policies - successful or otherwise - of external agencies, it is, as Holman says, up to the people who live on the estates to provide the stable local environment. Self-awareness is the first step in doing that. Poor people - to judge by the conversations I've eavesdropped on in single-mothers' groups, family centres and food co-operatives - are much sharper about that than patronising outsiders often assume.

So many of those whom politicians characterise as feckless lumps are in fact using huge amounts of energy on just holding their life together. Brought together, they set up an impressive array of self-help activities - after-school play schemes, toddler groups, boys' clubs, youth groups, toy libraries, clothing exchanges, baby co-operatives, food-purchasing co-ops, credit unions, and so on.

Such groups provide services; but they also build the competence and confidence of those involved. "I thought I was too thick to be on a committee," one poignantly said to me. "But now, here I am using a computer." Many gain the skills to get their first jobs ever.

One other thing is clear. There are no quick fixes in this complex interaction of national and local government, schools and police forces, and the poor people who are the objects of their social policy. Ours is a world where budgeting is increasingly short-term and political initiatives are neatly packaged to be complete by the next election.

Which perhaps explains the doom-laden tone we adopt when the reality of our "sink estates" thrusts itself before us in the shocking shape of something like the death of Damilola Taylor. But Bob Holman has lived on Easterhouse for 14 years; and Jim Hewitt on Blackbird Leys for almost two decades. Trust, they know, is something that is built up only slowly.

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