I had never been to the Ravenscliffe estate in north Bradford and so I didn't really know what to expect. I knew that it used to be twinned with a place called Notorious, but was told that that was no longer the case. Jack Straw came here a year or so ago and promised everyone that things were going to get better. Much better. Just as in the song. He was declaring war on neighbours from hell. No longer were crime, litter, spitting and antisocial behaviour to be tolerated. If the police didn't arrest someone, then he just might.
In short, the Revolution was on the way, and it would begin here. Well, this week sees a key date in said Revolution, though it is a trifle unfortunate that it is also April Fools' Day. This is when AntiSocial Behaviour Orders, also known as Asbos, are to be brought in. These are aimed at outlawing neighbours from hell or, as the Home Secretary has put it, town terrorists. The idea is that the council or police will apply for the orders against anyone aged 10 or over who is engaged in routine intimidation or harassment. Professional witnesses can be used to preserve victims' anonymity.
The order is like an injunction, but if you are found to be in breach of it you can be sent to jail for up to five years. Civil libertarians are suspicious, but then they may not live next to a bullying horror whose idea of fun is throwing lumps of concrete about. People in Ravenscliffe do. Or so I had read.
I wanted to talk to some families but thought it fair to call on councillors and community groups first. They were all hooked on good news. "I hope you are not going to be negative," said one after the other. "Things are much better. Things have turned round!" Did I know about the Tenancy Enforcement Team? Did I realise there was a new lettings policy? At the monthly community meeting on the 1,500-house estate the policeman was so upbeat that a song and dance routine seemed sure to follow. Crime was down, down, down, he said. There used to be two burglaries a day and now there were five a month. "I'm sorry, but I am cock-a-hoop," he crowed. "It is time that we started talking up Ravenscliffe, not talking it down."
I left, and couldn't help but notice that there was a man whose entire job was to watch our cars while we were at the meeting. The main avenue is wide and lined with two- and three-bedroom semi-detached houses. They were built in the Twenties of good materials. Most look in decent repair. They have largish gardens. I saw a "for sale" sign. There's a chippie and a corner shop. It didn't look too bad. I turned off, on my way to meet the first family.
Here the rubbish is everywhere, and shocking. It fills gardens and spills on to pavements. In some gardens you cannot see green for the layers of old clothes, food wrappers, boxes, papers, nappies. Ripped bin-bags and bits of rubbish hang from trees as if taking part in some sort of grotesque urban spring. A long-time resident would later tell me that the technical term for all of this was "shit tip". "It's an old English expression," she said, and laughed as I wrote it down.
Many of the houses are empty, with boards for windows. There is graffiti, and a general decay that makes those houses where people have attempted a flower bed or two look all the more pathetic. Suddenly the air is full of smoke and I see that one of the front gardens is ablaze. It is dusk and some boys are running around. They tell me they are burning rubbish but I can see that one is holding a bow saw and another is trying to hide a freshly cut pine sapling behind his back. I drive by several times in the next few hours. Sometimes the flames leap into the night, sometimes they shrink to campfire size. I am told this is normal behaviour.
It takes a long time to find the street and, as I park, I am aware that this could be the last time I see my car. Normally I never think of such things, but this is hardly normal. Perhaps it is the smell of smoke mixed with rubbish, or the children flitting round as if they were extras in Lord of the Flies. Perhaps it is the eeriness of a half-empty neighbourhood. It occurs to me that we have all come to see Neighbours from Hell as something that is a bit entertaining. Certainly on television they all seem locked in ludicrous battles involving hedges or fences or some bit of concrete. But this is no Bernard Ingham escapade. This place feels threatening and alien. Here someone else is in charge.
Marcia and Mike have one of those front rooms in which everything matches. The carpet is plush, the sofas are squidgy. The ornaments are arranged just so. The family photographs are in silver frames and displayed at careful angles. The room is a picture of order. The people in it are not. Marcia and Mike and their children are at the end of their own particular spiral of despair. They have been burgled 11 times and are now too afraid to leave the house for a holiday. They live amid constant intimidation though they will not tell me specifics, because they are scared of being identified. I am not using their real names, but they are still afraid. When I ask their daughter what she thinks, she starts to cry and says she hates it; no one will come to her house to play.
They explain that they are normal, respectable, working people and that they feel trapped in a street where most people are not. "We're honest. We work an honest living, don't we? We pay our way," says Marcia. They have lived here for at least a decade and the big problem is that they bought their council house. They are now desperate to sell, but who would buy here? Anywhere else, their house would be worth pounds 40,000.
They see themselves as having two options. One would be to walk away. They did try to give the keys back to the building society after the worst burglary. But voluntary repossession would mean they could not get another mortgage. The second option would be to sell to a property management company. They did approach one; it offered them pounds 15,000.
For now, they are stumbling on. I mention Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and they look at me strangely. How could Orders be brought against a whole streetful of people? And what about reprisals? "Even if they moved them off, they would know where to find us," they say. No one has talked to them about using the Orders. I say that they could have professional witnesses. They say that it would be obvious who had complained. They are too afraid and too exhausted. Marcia says she has been on antidepressant tablets for six months and has no plans to come off them. Both see the only answer as the council buying their house so that they can go away and start a new life.
I am surprised that my car is still there. Next stop is the home of Cathy and Dave. They, too, are the odd ones out on their street. They have had a brick through the window, air pellets, half a dozen burglaries, and sleepless nights. There are always kids running around, even at 2am. Lumps of concrete appear in the drive. Their home is immaculate but it is also a fortress. Their dog is wearing a muzzle. "It's intimidation more than anything. When we leave, we know we've been seen," she says. They stagger their schedule. They believe they are always being observed and so sometimes, just to keep these people guessing, Cathy or Dave will drive while the other hides in the back seat.
They have nothing but praise for their MP, Terry Rooney, the police and the Tenancy Enforcement Team, though they say that none of these has given them any results. They say that the police are much like me: they sit in the family's front room, commiserating but unable to relax because they are worried about their cars.
Cathy: It's a nightmare here.
Dave: I can't invite anybody to this house. The only people who will come are good friends and brave friends. You can't invite people here. It's awful. We are trapped.
Cathy: We are not ashamed of our house. We worked to pay for this and keep it decent.
Dave: Our problem is getting anyone into the street...
Cathy: ...without a brick being thrown.
As home-owners, they are trapped; but they also seem feisty. "They bloody aren't going to get me down, that's why," says Cathy. I mention Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and she says that she was told she would have to sign an affidavit and stand up in court. I said that that wasn't the case (though the Home Office, when I rang them, could not tell me exactly what was the case). Cathy says that whatever happened, other intimidating types would just take the place of the current offenders. Plus, everyone would know who had complained. Cathy and Dave want the council to buy them out. They say that Anti-Social Behaviour Orders may look good on paper, but this is reality.
The next day I meet a group of women who run the advice centre and put on a weekly lunch for people on the estate who otherwise would never get out. They believe that the Orders are the work of Big Brother. Anyway, they don't see why people should let others bully them or push them about. "If you seem frightened, that's when they take advantage," says Pat Quirk, who has lived here since 1963. The conversation swirls around various subjects: the police attitude to paedophiles, the fact that someone on the estate has a horse in their garden, the lack of bin-liners. The local housing officer, Jim Steward, notes that what looks simple in Westminster, in the real situation becomes linked to all these subjects and more.
I fear the Revolution is on shaky ground here, but at last I meet a man named Jim who lives on a different street with a different attitude. He is hopeful, and thinks the Orders could really work. Most of the people on this street are good neighbours, he says, but there are one or two who aren't. One man in particular has a foul temper and occasionally explodes in a window-smashing frenzy. The next time that happens, he just might find himself the subject of an Order.
Suddenly, in this house with no fear, I can see how the Orders could work. But that is when the bad neighbour is the odd one out. How can they possibly be used to reclaim streets where neighbours from hell are in the vast majority?
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