I am in Harehills, just down the road from the shiny, bright prosperity of Leeds city centre and a five-minute drive from Harvey Nichols. It is one of Europe’s most multicultural areas. The small Brazilian clothes shop, the Irish centre and Milan Road, with its Malaysian immigrants, are the signposts that make it easy to see why. It is also one of the most deprived areas in England. NatWest, the last bank on Harehills high street, closed four years ago, just after Boots. Shops lie derelict and burnt out.
I keep catching glimpses of solitary children sitting in the backs of minicabs. The details of their faces are hidden by the reflection of night sky on glass, but their sharp eyes shine at me as the cabs drift past the run-down Victorian terraces.
It is only when I meet two teenage boys, Ali and Jamal (not their real names), dressed in the young person’s uniform of trainers, tracksuit bottoms and hooded tops, that I understand why I keep seeing these children. Two years ago Ali and Jamal got themselves a job, and they now make a steady £20,000 a year. They run drugs – worth between £4,000 and £5,000 weekly, on the open market – for one of the many dealers in Harehills. “Only way you don’t get caught around here’s in a taxi, innit?” says Ali. “If ya in a car selling drugs it’s more likely for us to get pulled over by police, innit? If you’re in a taxi then they can’t say what you’re doin’, ‘cos you’re in a taxi. What you do is pay the taxi driver, what, hundred pounds for like an evenin’. All he’s gonna do is just drive ya round.”
In Harehills, at any hour of day or night, you can see a steady stream of crack and heroin runners, transporting their wares not just through the back alleys and ginnels but openly through the parks and along the main roads. But, thanks to mobile phones, the trade no longer needs street corners or parks to act as shopfronts. All it takes is a back-office operation in a few uninhabited flats, where the drugs can be stored, and a home delivery service couriered by teenagers desperate for money. Any of the city’s hundreds of addicts can dial a dealer and get their crack or heroin delivered to wherever they are by a kid on a bike, in a private car or in a taxi.
I am not mistaken about the youthfulness of these runners. As Ali says: “Everybody’s doin’ it. Any scaly kid will take you to the drug dealers. I’ve met kids who are 12, 11, doin’ it, sellin’.” Social workers, youth workers and residents confirm his account.
“It’s ‘ard to get a job,” says Jamal, “but still you got to make money. If there’s just one person who’s drug dealing, kids see the cash and go: ‘Look how much cash he’s makin’ and you’re makin’ this much working your arse off.’ And they go: ‘Yeah, that’s the easy way of makin’ money. I might as well do that.’ And you don’t have to do nothing. All yah do is chillin’. All yah do is walk around with kids and talk to people. Tha’s it.”
And what does Ali think about the families around here? “Yeah, perfect. They want the best for their children. They’ll do anything for their children. Yer get me? To get to good schools.”
That’s the strange thing. This part of Harehills is almost wholly Pakistani and Bangladeshi. And the community that raised Ali and Jamal and countless other runners is proud of its traditional Asian values. If you lament the erosion of old-style morality and family life, you would approve of the parents in this area. Children here respect their elders, help their parents to run the family business. Many attend evening classes in Islamic studies.
“I might bump into someone who doesn’t have the same hairstyle as I do,” says Javaid Akhtar, Liberal Democrat councillor for the Gipton and Harehills ward, “someone who might have a long, hippie hairstyle – but as long as he comes up to you and recognises you and says, ‘Hi, uncle, how’s it going?’ then that’s positive. He hasn’t ignored me and he hasn’t become 100 per cent westernised and he’s still got eastern values. Most of our youngsters still have those values. Ninety per cent or more of the youngsters who live in my ward were born in this country, they’ve been educated in this country, but they can speak their own mother tongue, and that’s family values when it comes down to it.”
Theirs are strict parents who know what’s going on: they are just as clued up about the dangers of drugs as any other parent in Britain. As for the mosques, they even have a man out rounding up kids to send them to evening prayer.
To understand the area, you have to turn to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. This department, in order to identify pockets of deprivation more accurately, divides England and Wales into 34,378 “super output areas”, each with a population of between 1,000 and 1,900. The area we are talking about – the Pakistani and Bangladeshi area of Harehills, where Ali and Jamal were brought up – is E0100429. It is ranked as the 116th most deprived area in England and Wales. However, area 429 has everything the drugs trade needs: infrastructure, consumers and labour.
It is, for example, ranked as the country’s 115th worst area for housing: 61 per cent of residents live in rented accommodation (double the national average), 75 per cent of houses are deemed below acceptable standard, and 45 per cent of houses (five times the national average) do not have central heating. Nearly one in ten properties lies abandoned. Most of these are snapped up by the drugs trade and used for dealing. Squatters move into the others and use them as makeshift homes.
Claire Harbottle, a photographer who lives in a street on the edge of Harehills, says: “We got a house up the road, about six or seven doors up, which was squatted by dealers and druggies. It took six months for them to be evicted, but for six months the whole place just seemed to nosedive.
“We had overt prostitution, in-yer-face prostitution, going on day and night. They’d leave used condoms lying around. They trashed the house. They’d chuck their needles in your garden as they’d walk past, and I’ve got kids, so every time you let your kids out you had to check your garden for needles.
“If it wasn’t nailed down or bolted down, they’d nick it. So we had our car window put through; all the other neighbours had their car windows put through to get anything in the car. They sold everything. They sold the radiators, the floorboards. The house was a shell. The neighbours just gave up and left, basically.”
After pressure from the other residents, the dealers were evicted and the landlord eventually renovated the house. But, says Harbottle: “If that house had not been on a street that was really, really nice, it would have been left empty for years, derelict. And when that happens it spreads out, because you don’t want to live next door to a derelict house. So you sell up, and then the next person doesn’t want to live next to a derelict house, and it spreads like a fungus. If there hadn’t been that kind of community on that street, it might have taken on a whole different aspect.”
Kevin Hickson, an artist who has lived in the heart of area 429 for seven years, doesn’t have “that kind of community” on his street. People keep moving away to escape debt; sometimes, they make enough money to get out of Harehills altogether. He tells me that when dealers, among them a 13-year-old girl, squatted the house across the road, they would shout at people as they walked past. If you responded, they would emerge and beat the hell out of you.
“They did it to a young couple who live on the back of my street: they shouted something and the guy told them to fuck off, and so they chased them around. [The couple] managed to get to their house, but [the dealers] kicked the door down. They broke his ribs, they broke his jaw, fractured his skull – he was left in intensive care. They beat the hell out of her. She was pregnant and she lost the baby.”
There’s much more about area 429 I could tell you. The jobless rate for male residents aged between 16 and 64 is 9 per cent, but when you add to this all the other economically inactive categories, such as those claiming incapacity benefit (but excluding those who are retired), that figure climbs to 34 per cent. So it is no surprise that 64 per cent of the dependent children in the area live in income-deprived families.
Yet you won’t find any statistics for drug use here. Until very recently, nobody thought Class A drug use was a problem in strict Muslim areas, so they didn’t bother doing any research. When I interviewed the supervisor for the local adult users project (she did not want to be named), she said she had never thought the scale of crack and heroin use in the Pakistani/Bangladeshi community – her community – would be as big as it is. “The family values are OK,” she says, “but the Muslim community can say no to drugs and to alcohol and it’s not good enough. They [the users] will do it because it’s easily available.”
She tells me that the generation of hard-drug users who started a habit as teenagers have now grown up to become mothers and fathers. She is starting to see drug use during pregnancy. She starts crying as she tells me just how distressing it is for her to watch hard-working Muslim parents getting beaten up by their own children for money to fund their habits.
In area 429, the drugs trade became even bigger once the dealers co-opted kids into it, making it harder for police to arrest those higher up the chain of command. There’s no difficulty in recruiting kids. No dedicated youth or leisure centre exists anywhere near here. The vast majority of people don’t even have a garden, and 56 per cent of households don’t have a car to get to a park.
Kasim, 16, takes me aside as local youths aim fireworks at cars, buses and cyclists near where the NatWest used to be. “Yeah, the young people round here – the 17- and 18-year-olds – they’re all unemployed,” he says. “Most of them hang around and are mixed up with smack, or they’ll twock [joyride] or go round robbing.”
Sixty-two per cent of the working-age population have no qualifications of any sort. The drug dealers offer these children the equivalent of a fast-track graduate training scheme: a good regular income, career prospects and peer status. The government does not even offer 16-year-olds unemployment benefit, unless they can prove that they are totally estranged from their parents.
No one planned for the drugs trade to set up in area 429, but once the cracks of deprivation appeared, they were filled. Once the cemetery and the parks and the alleyways and the disused houses got swallowed up by crack and heroin dealers and the users began coming to everyone’s door, offering to sell them stolen goods (or even themselves) to get their next hit, heroin and crack became just another part of life. If you were depressed – the area has some of the worst depression and suicide rates in the country – the supply that offered relief was on your doorstep. If you were a kid, drug dealing was something you saw day in and day out.
In area 429, people stopped being shocked long ago, and when that happened, the ethics of the men in the mosque and those sturdy family values that David Blunkett and the Daily Mail cherish so dearly lost all their potency. In other words, when people stopped being appalled by the appalling, morality did not stand a chance.