Taking a crack at the Mozart: On Wednesday, after a year of complaints about drugs, police swooped on the notorious London estate. What took them so long? Heather Mills reports

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The Independent Online
THE AMAZING thing about the crack dealing on the fringes of the inaptly-named Mozart estate in west London was that it was so blatant. Day or night, but mostly at night, young men gathered on street corners, under the stairwell and in the corridors of two of the blocks of maisonettes to sell rocks and socialise. Cars drew up for a take-away service, younger men running between car and dealer. You could hear their mobile phones - a bigger order. Invitations to sample their goods were only vaguely disguised: 'Looking for someone or something?'

In the day, the dealers' presence was intimidating, at night threatening. Residents under siege were frightened for themselves and their children. They had good reason. In March a young man was shot just outside Boyce House, one of the estate's 29 blocks of flats, in broad daylight, witnessed by children.

An arson attack left a blackened corridor but was extinguished before anyone was hurt. There have been knifings, threats and harassment - all drug-related and all in just a few streets in a tiny pocket of what is geographically Westminster, but seems much more like nearby Kilburn.

Until Wednesday, when the estate was raided by 250 police - accompanied by television crews - and eight people were arrested, complaints had brought little relief. For more than a year, residents said they had seen a pattern of escalating violence since drug dealers migrated from the infamous All Saints Road, less than a mile away, after police drove them out. At one point, a Mozart resident wrote in despair to Sir John Wheeler, then chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, outlining the drug problems and urging action.

A police raid on the estate followed, but it ended sourly in a pending civil claim against the Metropolitan force in which Trevor Gerald, the man who had written to Sir John, is alleging false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and assault.

And in March the Marquess of Blandford was arrested, just outside Mozart, with a bottle of pills. He was released on police bail pending analysis of the tablets.

By their overt activity, the pushers appeared to be sticking two fingers up not only to the residents but to authority. It was perhaps not surprising that residents believed police policy was simply to contain the problem.

'Fine for them. But not for us. It has been like this a long, long time,' said Decia Gerald, Trevor Gerald's wife and the local playgroup leader. The couple have lived on Mozart with their two children for 14 years. 'Every day they are here. There are crazy people. You don't know whether they are on drugs or not or what they are going to do. Some nights you hear them fighting and screaming at each other. It's frightening for me, but what effect it is having on my children?'

The top floor of her maisonette opens up on to the corridor gutted by fire. The taxi firm that takes her eight-year-old son, Justin, to and from his special language school now refuses to drive on to the estate. A woman who was escorting Justin on one occasion was terrified when a man, bleeding from a stab wound and wielding a knife, leapt into the cab.

The dealers also bring temptation to the children. 'My husband is unemployed. I work part time and so money is not plentiful. My children see these kids out here with a lot of money and possessions . . .'

Her sister, Cindy Shillingford, paying a rare visit, said: 'We are scared to come here. Sometimes they are dealing right outside Dee's door. They'll pass it right in front of you. A policeman might be standing just a few yards away and they'll be dealing under the stairs. I am really frightened for Dee and the children.'

It was against this background of spiralling violence that an unlikely grouping of men, calling themselves the Fathers of the Ghetto, has emerged. United by a sense of hopelessness and what they had long perceived as a failure of police to deal with the problem, they decided to act.

The 'Fathers' - mixed races, differing backgrounds and with a wide age range - meet mainly in the local pub. 'It's a men's movement,' said Ray Brennan, a resident of Boyce House. 'It's sprung out of violence. Violence is generally a male thing. But it's about more than that. It's about poverty. It's about telling people how we live. It's about giving a voice to people who feel they have been forgotten.'

Mr Brennan, who intersperses periods of unemployment with writing television scripts, including episodes of Casualty, added: 'The amazing thing about the shooting was that some young girls giggled. It was a kind of release - not because we are brutish, but because we had been tensed rigid.

'Fathers is also about us men. We were the ones who just missed the boom. With young babies, we were just short of the amount needed to get on the mortgage ladder and ended up here. Then, in the Eighties, everyone lost their jobs. We also lost our self respect. We felt emasculated. Virtually every relationship has broken up because of the pressures on families stuck together in their small flats.

'For the last year or so we have been living with a sense of the blitz. No one felt really safe. We had lost our sense of dignity. We decided we wanted it back. We needed a gentlemen's code. If it has done little else, Fathers of the Ghetto has got people talking to each other. We are being gentlemen and that makes Mozart a nicer place for everyone.'

The estate was once heralded as a model Seventies development, low-rise, smart red brick, courtyards, green areas - a humanising response to the tower-block disasters of the previous decade. The fanfare was short-lived. The wicked irony was that these socialising features turned the place into a haven for muggers and burglars, who could fade away among its walkways and corridors.

Such was the estate's reputation that Westminister City Council invested in the talents of Professor Alice Coleman, whose influential book, Utopia on Trial, established links between social malaise, crime and vandalism, and the design and layout of modern estates.

She and her team decided on radical restructuring, including removing the walkways, building new access roads, blocking corridors, eliminating communal space that had no clear function and providing individual access to some ground-floor flats. After four walkways were removed in 1986, the burglary rate fell by 55 per cent within a week and it remains remarkably low compared with surrounding areas.

The estate's tenants' association maintains that, with the exception of the tiny crack corner around Boyce House, the estate is a fine place to live. Muriel Agnew, its chairman, is fiercely defensive. 'There has never been a fair report of what is going on here. Of all the good that happens. What was wrong with this estate was its design, and we are changing that. We have been working with the council to improve the quality of life.

'All newspapers ever look at is the black side. It is distressing for the residents because it produces a false picture to the outside world. Our relatives call and tell us we should move away, when the reality is that most of the estate is a safe and sociable place that we want to stay in. We do not deny there is a drug problem in the bottom corner, and we are hoping for funds from the council to make improvements there. We are also liaising with the police.'

Speaking a few days before the raid, Inspector Paul Toland, whose duties include the policing of the estate, said that while the eventual aim was to clear the area of drugs and dealers, any action had to involve a strategy to stop them simply moving elsewhere. Because there were only two roads entering the area, dealers were easily alerted to any approach by police and would vanish. There were also difficulties in merely arresting people on suspicion. The police are planning to open a substation on the edge of the estate, where what residents call 'the jackals' operate, in July or August.

Last week, as the dealers continued to flaunt their wares, there was - not surprisingly - no hint that police were planning a huge raid to rid the residents of the jackals. Then on Wednesday, they struck. A spokeswoman from Scotland Yard said that Operation Troodos ended a three-month covert operation and netted 8 out of 27 suspected dealers operating in the area.

Mr Brennan said yesterday: 'We welcomed the raid, but it was long overdue. Last night was the first night people felt safe to go on the streets. But we hope the whole thing was not a PR exercise, because there do not seem to be any police here today. But then again, there aren't any TV crews either.'

(Photograph omitted)