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Why the government must pledge to eliminate sink estates in ten years

Deprived estates can be recovered from within; the government must commit to a ten-year programme to clean them up with them help of dedicated individuals.

Targeted interventions driven by dedicated individuals have made a big difference on some estates. Photo: Getty

Having spent time on some of the worst estates in Britain talking to frontline police officers, residents and members of those communities, it is shocking to see how entrenched and generational the social problems are: fly-blown, rat-infested flats occupied by small children with raw heels because their parents can’t afford shoes the right size.

Domestic violence is endemic. On one estate, the council always used to house vulnerable women fleeing violent, abusive partners at the same flat. Organised crime groups found out which one and targeted these women as soon as they moved in, so they could hook them on hard drugs and use the flat for their expanding drug empire. It seems surprising that the council and the police are not communicating about this, but it highlights one of the key problems – agencies and partners do not share information, they work in silos. 

Despite high crime rates, many estate residents are too frightened of the repercussions, or disillusioned with the police, to report crime, the report says. It describes increased crime reporting as a fundamental step in changing estates.

The 2011 riots in London and across the country were the most compelling sign that the social fabric of Britain was in urgent need of repair. Britain’s most deprived housing estates are a time-bomb of social decay. Decades of neglect and ghettoisation have led to acute, entrenched social problems that cost billions to the public purse: gang warfare, knife crime, domestic violence, illiteracy, unemployment and child neglect.

In Taunton, Detective Constable Andy Murphy has turned around the crime-ridden Halcon Estate. It had been neglected for 80 years. Organised drug gangs from Manchester had taken over. Youth unemployment, intimidation and domestic violence were rife. Murphy’s first challenge was to break the wall of silence and increase the reporting of crime. He installed a portacabin with police insignia in the car park of the local Asda. A witness or victim could say they were visiting the supermarket and use that as an opportunity to give their statement, without fear of being seen talking to the police.

In Halcon, like many troubled estates, a key obstacle was that statutory agencies were prone to working in silos and were reluctant to share information with each other. Murphy’s solution was simple. He held meetings three times a week with all the different agencies in an ex-housing authority flat. They talked about all the problems faced on the estate: crime, illiteracy, unemployment, substance abuse, rape and assault. Lasting partnerships were forged. Together, his team mapped out the whole community and used the data to examine every household. No problems were left festering behind closed doors. Their interventions became more specific, targeted and effective. Over five years, Murphy’s team transformed the estate.

In Lambeth, South London, a local sergeant, Jack Rowlands, had policed the Stockwell Park Estate for a decade. It was notorious for gang crime, drugs and guns. But Rowlands noticed the gangs weren’t making much money from drug dealing – nor were they claiming benefits. One gang member said: “Get me a job, sarge.” So Rowlands decided to organise a job fair on the estate. He liaised with voluntary organisations and businesses like Timpsons, which has a track record of employing people with criminal records. Eighteen young men known to the police as gang members got jobs at the first job fair and have stayed in employment ever since. One became a manager at Westfield Shopping Centre; he now talks differently and his whole outlook has changed. Rowlands says this makes him far prouder than if he’d just arrested him and banged him up in prison. Four job fairs later, 48 gang members have found work in catering, retail, and construction.

The deprived Pengegon Estate, in Camborne, Cornwall, arson was eliminated by getting the local fire brigade, Blackwatch, to play football with the local lads.

These successful transformations show that deprived estates can be recovered from within. By being locally-minded, determined and creative, individuals were able to catalyse huge change.

Gang members can be given a way out to a better life. They need more positive local influences in their lives. As one resident put it: “Sure, we have role models. Barack Obama. Nelson Mandela. They just don’t live round here.”

It would be morally inexcusable for policymakers to turn their backs on Britain’s sink estates. Even the most notorious, deprived council estates can be transformed from dangerous backwaters. Gang members can be presented with a route away from crime towards a better life. Children and families living in these troubled communities can have their lives dramatically enhanced. But only if the government commits to a ten-year programme to clear up the worst estates in the country. Targeted interventions driven by dedicated individuals have made an enormous difference.

Gavin Knight is a journalist and author of the book Hood Rat on inner city gun and gang crime. He is also the writer of The Estate We’re In, a new Policy Exchange report