Small acts that rescue communities

For more than 20 years Anne Power has been turning sink estates around, using a tough brand of self-help
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The Independent Online
The photogenic record of the Sixties tells of mellow-yellow flower power, stoned with the Stones in Hyde Park or pan pipes playing on the Glastonbury hillside. But underneath all that there was something else more important, a spirit of the times not captured on film which is in danger of being lost to memory.

Anne Power is one personification of it. And there she is today, still filled with the same missionary zeal, somewhat dented and battered but essentially still a believer. No, not in ley lines or UFOs, but in the ability of individuals to make a difference, of communities to be pulled together by hard work and hope, a can-do approach all but squeezed out of social work these days.

Today the Joseph Rowntree Foundation publishes her report on the fate of 20 of the country's worst housing estates over the past 15 years. She pioneered a new approach to estate management in the Seventies and she followed the progress of the estates that used most of her methods. Swimming Against the Tide - Polarisation or progress on 20 unpopular housing estates 1980-1995 is not a rosy picture of success. It is the story of a battle against worsening odds, of growing racial ghetto-isation, of estates grotesquely out of kilter with too many children and teenagers and too few adults becoming ever more isolated from the rest of society, danger zones on the edge of riot or terminal decay.

And yet, even in these adverse conditions, the report shows that it is still possible to improve them. This isn't miracle-working but an unending war against the worst, where marginal improvements matter.

Back in the late Sixties, Ms Power was a mother of three living in Islington, north London. Together with friends and neighbours she helped to found a multitude of voluntary community organisations. They sprouted up all around her, in the days when such efforts were encouraged with libations from local authorities and the GLC. They knew how to blow on the embers of voluntary energy instead of stifling it, though often all that is remembered now is the corruption or the absurdities of some of their dafter projects. Playgroups, summer camps for inner-city children, co-operatives of various kinds, tenant advice centres and law centres all flourished under Ms Power's enthusiasm.

Such dynamism doesn't go unnoticed. A local Quaker organisation employed her to teach others from all over the country how to set up community projects. From there she went to work for the Department of Environment on the Priority Estates Project, and became one of the country's leading experts on managing the difficult social ecology of the worst estates.

Fifteen years ago, when this study began, I spent time with her on one of her priority estates in Brixton, south London. It was a seething disaster managed catastrophically by the GLC. It was so hated that there was a one-third turnover of tenants each year, with colossal rent arrears. There were 14 break-ins a week, joy-riders used it as a racetrack and more than a hundred flats were derelict. Gypsies were squatting and using the place for car-breaking and scrap-dealing. It was a fly-tipper's heaven as old sofas and mattresses lay where they were dumped while torn and mouldering black bin bags littered the Forties balconies. Jammed rubbish chutes were often set on fire. Only two out of the eight caretaking posts were filled and there was no beat policeman.

I remember the gleam in her eye as she surveyed all this, itching to get her hands on it. These are her rules: first open a housing office on the estate. The housing officers must be enthusiastic community workers to help run tenants' groups, for without some tenant participation nothing works. Her second rule is devolution of everything to the estate office: the budget for repairs, the management and the policy on lettings. This last caused most trouble, as it meant overturning the points-based allocation system.

That was only one of her battles for practical, common sense solutions against the ideologues of all colours that she has fought all her life. She is also ruthless about evicting the few dangerously disruptive families, and rejects a community care policy that puts alcoholic men or the floridly mentally ill into estates full of single mothers.

The best-run estates in today's study are those few which finally succeeded in devolving management right down to the tenants' groups. But this is hard to achieve. Local leaders with the most get-up-and-go often do just that, so the torch has to be carried permanently by community workers based there. The trouble with housing improvement schemes in the Eighties, City Challenge and the rest, is that they all had an "exit" policy - a quick-fix in, refurbish and out strategy with a fixed date at which the funding ended, so estates often slid back once the schemes were over.

"Would you run a school with an exit policy? Of course not," she says. "You can't run these communities except by staying with them all the time." "Estatology" is a science that fascinates many, a problem demanding solution. Luckily, there is something about the idea of struggling to organise these microcosms of disadvantage that still stirs the imagination of those who flock to sit at Ms Powers's feet on her housing management course at the London School of Economics where she now teaches.

But in the long term, isn't demolition the only hope? Whatever the architecture, these planning disasters are distilleries of hopelessness. No chance, she says. Five million people live in public housing, three-quarters of them on estates that will still be with us beyond the next century. There will be no money to build the ideal small streets, with young and old, private and public tenants, richer and poorer all together. Forget it. We will have to keep on managing what we have for the foreseeable future.

She brings no message of hope from these battlefronts, only urgent warnings of what is to come unless something is done - and she speaks with the authority of knowledge. What has happened to the most violent American estates she sees coming here. Every ingredient is there as she watches the polarisation of the unemployed while those in work flee. Tinder boxes for riots, sliding into violent decay, the ostracised will rise up to torment us.

As a spirit of the Sixties, she believes it is jobs, projects, hope, activity and training that will make a difference. On the other hand, she abhors thoughtless expenditure: she is often appalled by mega-expensive glossy refurbishments of estates, and pleads instead for slow, steady, consistent rolling repairs, husbanding existing resources, spending now to make measurable savings in the cost of future chaos.

She does not expect economic miracles from any government to deliver jobs to Hackney, Gateshead or Walsall. But she says small sums used consistently can move mountains. Take training. Why do the Tecs have work and working qualifications as their goal, aiming only to get people off benefit? These people need courses on running things for their community, even if it never leads to paid work. Purposeful activity matters.

Out of step with that laconic Nineties fatalism that says nothing works, nothing can be done, perhaps she will chime better with the coming age: she was a benevolent communitarian long before that term became fashionable.

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