Whatever happened to the hoodie Cameron told us to hug?

Ryan Florence's gesture made him a symbol of what some called 'Broken Britain'. Mark Hughes returned to the Benchill estate in Manchester to pick up the story

Wednesday 14 April 2010 00:00

It was the image that encapsulated the moment when David Cameron's much mocked "hug-a- hoodie" rhetoric came face-to-face with what he now describes as "Broken Britain". Striding confidently across one of the country's most deprived council estates, the Tory leader's photo opportunity was hijacked.

A hooded teenager, complete with tracksuit bottoms and scruffy trainers, had snuck into the frame and took aim, using his fingers to point an imaginary gun at Cameron.

The image appeared on the front of many newspapers and embarrassed Cameron and the Tory high command. The estate was Benchill, in Wythenshawe, south Manchester. The boy was 17-year-old Ryan Florence and the date was February 2007. Three years on, and the Broken Britain drum is still being banged by the Tories. Anti-social behaviour, its impact and how it can be dealt with is a key election theme for all the political parties.

But what became of Ryan Florence and the Benchill estate?

A month after the picture was taken, Florence, who was already electronically tagged on the orders of a court, was jailed for 18 months for three burglaries and given an anti-social behaviour order (Asbo). Upon his release, he returned to Benchill but, with residents angry at his shaming of the estate, was forced to leave. "Ryan and his family got a really bad time after that picture appeared," explained Greg Davis, who co-ordinated Cameron's visit to Benchill. "The windows of his house were smashed up, and they decided to leave the estate."

But he appears to have turned over a new leaf. Florence now lives in Wales and has married his Welsh girlfriend, Maud.

His Asbo expired early last month and he has not had any contact with police in either Manchester or Wales since his release. He is, it turns out, living a life far removed from his previous existence – which he bragged consisted of taking drugs and walking the streets of Wythenshawe with his gang, the Benchill Mad Dogs.

Or, as he put it to a BBC crew at the time, "I'm a soldier round here. I do what I have to do, innit." Asked about what he would be doing in five years he responded: "Me? Fuck knows. There are people trying to shoot me. I will be dead soon."

Although Florence has departed Benchill, there is a new generation of young hoodies more than happy to take his place. The Benchill Mad Dogs are still spoken about on the estate. During the day, boys in their late teens and twenties ride around the streets on bikes. Some walk around with menacing-looking dogs.

While Florence became a hero within his own circle of friends, who lapped up his appearances in the newspapers and on the news, among the adults of the estate the resentment and anger over his five minutes of fame lingers. Mention Ryan Florence's name on the estate and people bristle.

"I have to admit, I was very angry about it," Brenda Grixti, the manager of the local community centre, said. "It really did give a bad picture of the area. It destroyed the image of the area that we have worked so hard to improve.Everyone who lives here knows that he was just showing off, and that Benchill wasn't really like that." It is fair to say that the locals are fed-up with their neighbourhood being portrayed negatively. So much so that the local newspaper, The Wythenshawe World, has a policy of only reporting good news about the area. Crime goes unpublished.

While most people on the estate are at pains to point out that Florence and his ilk were not representative of Benchill, there can be no denying that it was, and remains, a poverty-ridden area. In 2000, it came bottom in the Index of Multiple Deprivation, making it officially the most deprived of all 8,414 council wards in England and Wales.

Those who live there admit it was a shameful tag they did not want to be lumbered with. Thanks to the fact that Manchester City Council abolished the ward of Benchill in 2004 – dividing the responsibility for the area between three existing wards – they can be assured it will never happen again. Cynicism about the motives of that decision aside, there appears to be genuine efforts to improve Benchill. Greater Manchester Police point out that, in the three years since Florence's gun show (known on the streets as a 'click-bang'), crime and anti-social behaviour have both dropped by about 30 per cent. Sergeant Jane Butler, the local neighbourhood police officer, has worked in Benchill for 10 years. In the middle of the Benchill estate is Haveley Circle, a grass park with a children's play area and a five-a-side football pitch. "This area used to be the focal point of all the problems," she said. "We used to have packs of kids hanging around here with nothing to do. They were young kids, probably aged about 13 or 14, and they would cause a nuisance – low-level stuff that would annoy neighbours – in the hope that someone might phone the police and we might give them a chase."

Sgt Butler says that the introduction of Asbos helped curtail the level of disorder on the estate.

"They became a deterrent because we told the parents of the worst-behaved children that they risked losing their tenancy if their kids' anti-social behaviour continued. The word soon got around that the Asbos we were giving out would really curtail their lives."

Benchill Community Centre stands out as by far the newest and most modern building in the otherwise modest estate. Although it has been there since 1994, funding and grants have allowed it to upgrade its facilities so it now has an astro-turf football pitch and runs karate lessons, dance classes and art groups.

But some say the community centre is going wrong way about it. Mr Davis runs the United Estates of Wythenshawe, a group which offers local youths access to a gym, a dance hall and DJ decks.

"The kids who are causing all the trouble in this area wouldn't be seen dead in a youth club or a community centre," he says. "I'm not knocking what the community centre has done, but they are providing for the kids who aren't the problem, and that solves nothing."

Much of Manchester City Council's focus in Benchill is around employment and education. The theory is that if these key areas are improved there will be less anti-social behaviour and deprivation as a result.

The council and the Government point to improving GCSE results (A-C passes have more than doubled in the past four years), and the £28m new campus of Manchester College being built in the area, as proof that the education side of things is being addressed. And Manchester Airport, just over a mile away from Benchill, employs more than 20,000 people .

But the veneer of progress cracks slightly if you look at the figures for the group of young people known as NEETs – those not in employment, education or training.

There are about 2,500 people aged between 16 and 19 in Wythenshawe, the area which covers Benchill. While the number of NEETs has fallen from 11 per cent to 10.5 per cent from 2009 to 2010, the figure is still higher than the Manchester average (8.3 per cent), and it is not falling as quickly.

On the corner of Hollyhedge Road and Solway Road is Copperdale, a hostel for "vulnerable" young men. Some of the teenagers there are on police bail or probation.

Terry Panks and his wife Ann Panks run Copperdale and have lived on the estate for the past 40 years. Ann thinks Benchill has gotten worse.

"Not so long ago, I could go to my friends house round the corner any time of the day or night. But now I would never dream of going outside after 9pm," she says. "Benchill has gotten better materially. The houses and the appearance of the estate is better. But the behaviour of people has gotten worse. "

The trouble happens, Ann says, right outside her front door. So she has installed a CCTV camera on the outside of the house, which she and Terry can view on a television in their living room. "When the summer comes we are really in for it because the nights are longer and warmer and the kids have no school. It's so bad that we pray for rain. It's horrible because it feels like our house is under seige." The material improvement that Ann speaks of is down to the Willow Park Housing Trust. Whereas once the streets were lined with boarded-up homes, there is now a six-year waiting list to get a property on the estate. Tina Knox moved to Benchill with her five children in 1996. She said: "When I walked into the housing office, the man told me to walk around the estate and pick a house. That is how empty it was, I literally chose my house and moved in three hours later. Now my son has been on the waiting list for four years."

Eddy Wieczorek, 51, has lived in Benchill all his life and is known locally as Eddy Miner, because he used to be a miner. But since the closure of the pits, he has worked on the estate as a taxi driver. "If anything, this place is getting worse," he opines.

As if to illustrate his point on the dangers of Benchill, Eddy is stumped when asked about a local pub I could visit. There are no pubs in Benchill because the local – The Greenwood Tree – was torn down as it was frequented by known gangsters.

There are a few pubs just outside the estate, but Eddy doesn't recommend any. He describes one as "like a war zone", and says another might be safe because "I can't see it kicking off in there on a Thursday. That only usually happens at the weekend."

There is no doubting that Benchill is deprived and has anti-social behaviour problems, but what can the politicians do? All three parties stress that the area is improving, and point to figures to prove it. But the anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. Martin Eakins, the Lib Dem candidate, suggests more for kids to do, such as a bowling alley or a cinema. Janet Clowes, the Tory candidate, suggests that those living in the area have an air of defeatism, and it is not until that attitude changes that the problems can be addressed.

But, as another local resident, Ian Johnson, suggests (as he explains he will himself vote Conservative), voting for anyone other than Labour in this area is like "pissing in the ocean".

So it is Paul Goggins, the area's MP since 1997, with a majority of 10,800, who will likely secure the seat once more. But as he canvasses the streets he will meet an element who believe the area is rougher than ever.

So why, if it is so bad, do they continue living in Benchill? "It's an awkward question," Terry Panks responds. "I live here because of the work we do with Copperdale. But I do wish it was a bit quieter. I hope it will get better – but then I've been hoping that for 40 years."

Wythenshaw and Sale East Result in 2005

Labour Paul Goggins, 18,878, 52.2 per cent

Conservative Jane Meehan, 8,051, 22.3 per cent

Liberal Democrat Alison Firth, 7,766, 21.5 per cent

UKIP William Ford, 1,120, 3.1 per cent

Socialist Alternative Lynn Worthington, 369, 1 per cent

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