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29 May 2000

Neighbours in hell

Roy Hattersleymeets five poor families who live in the shadow of the Dome. How can a government that

By Roy Hattersley

Lucy Hutton looked forward to visiting the Dome. The 11-year-old is a weekend swimmer. So she knew that Greenwich Council regards the Millennium “Experience” as a civic amenity to be enjoyed free, like the baths, by every teenager in the borough who can afford a pound for a “green card”. Her father – who gave up his job to look after his children when his wife left him seven years ago – was astonished by the discovery of the delights that awaited his daughter around the bend in the Thames. “Dad,” Lucy said with undisguised exasperation, “it was all in the leaflet that came through the door.”

Michael Hutton is not the sort of man who reads council circulars when they deal with life beyond his decaying council estate. “I don’t feel that it’s anything to do with me,” he says. Yet the Faith, Mind and Money zones are barely a mile away. They are part of the prosperous world from which he and families like him are permanently excluded – families who might have benefited from the £29m that has been taken from the New Opportunities Fund to bail out the Dome.

They are the families who live beyond the elegant properties of Blackheath and make Greenwich home to some of the most deprived and disadvantaged housing estates in all of England. For them, the future seems to hold no hope of unaccustomed prosperity. And there is a terrible acceptance that their fate will be passed on to their sons and daughters.

The Wheelers – a couple of roads south of the Huttons’ prewar block of flats – regard the Dome as a “waste of good money”. Albert Wheeler, aged 75, has not worked since he suffered two heart attacks in 1982. He and his wife, Gloria, live with five of their six children in conspicuous poverty. In the living room, there is a battered three-piece suite that is barely in better condition than its predecessor, which decorates the front garden. Clothes are kept in cardboard boxes. The one sign of affluence is the television set. At ten o’clock in the morning, Peter (19) and Michael (17) sit on the floor to watch cartoons. Michael has learning difficulties. Peter can hear but not speak.

Last August, the Wheelers applied to the government’s Social Fund for a £1,300 grant. They received £130 with which to buy a single bed, single duvet and waterproof sheet for Michael. An identical application on behalf of Peter was rejected on the grounds that the youth – who cannot speak, read or write – should have completed his own form. The request to meet the cost of a carpet, pillows, sheets and various items of essential clothing was refused on the grounds that the Social Fund has “only a limited amount available”.

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The Millennium Dome, on the other side of the Isle of Dogs, has already exceeded the original estimated cost of £400m by more than £100m. Now it is to get almost £30m more.

A couple of miles away, Nicholas Martin aspires to no more than “keeping a roof over his head and the kids fed and clothed”. Martin’s wife – who worked in a burger bar in Woolwich Market – “went off with another chap” two years ago, when the youngest of their seven children was three years old.

Ten-year-old Stephen has “a perforated kidney”. He also suffers from “temper problems”, which the school regards as serious enough to require professional attention.

Because the house is overcrowded, Nicholas Martin sleeps on the sofa in the living room. “As soon as I wake up in the morning, the television’s on. When I get in bed, it goes off.” It is his only pleasure.

The dawn of the new millennium has no meaning for him. “Next day is never any different from the last. I never think about the future because I can’t see anything changing.” If money runs out on Sunday – giro cheque is cashed on Monday and child benefit is paid on Tuesday – he “borrows from next door or a lady down the road”. There is no New Opportunities Fund for him.

Although she looks older than her age, Marion Hacking – an attractive 33-year-old mother of five – ought to have hopes of building a new life with a permanent partner. But, she insists, “the children are all I’ve got and I don’t expect anything else”. Marion Hacking married on the day before her 17th birthday. Lisa, the product of that early union, suffers from what her mother describes as “lacking the energy gene”. Whatever the medical description, the symptoms are distressingly obvious. Although “nobody realised that anything was wrong until she was three”, Lisa is now so mentally handicapped that she spends one week in three in care.

Marion Hacking – separated from Lisa’s father after barely a year – moved in with a new partner. He left her when she was five months pregnant with their second child. A second marriage lasted longer than the first – long enough to produce Kevin (11) and Kate (two). That, too, ended in separation. But at least the estranged husband babysits while the woman to whom he remains married has an occasional night out “at the wrestling”. It is her only indulgence. Last year, she “went on a Mencap holiday to a place near the sea. It was bloody cold from start to finish. And while we were away, somebody broke in and stole the video.” She had forgotten that the Dome was just two miles away.

The very poor believe that they must apologise for the few possessions of value that they own. Marion Hacking’s video recorder – she was anxious to point out – was a grandmother’s Christmas gift to Lisa. Nicholas Martin felt obliged to explain that the computer in his living room was “my present for Stephen. A friend bought it and I paid him back bit by bit.” Tina Woodcock – a single mother whose only ambition is to have a house without mould creeping up the walls – carefully emphasised that her three-piece suite and music centre had been left by her partner “when he moved out”.

The irrational guilt is matched by an admirable (if infuriating) lack of resentment. Michael Hutton fears that his son is bullied at school because “we can’t afford the uni- form T-shirt” and he “wears the same clothes each day, even though I wash them overnight”. He now suffers what sociologists call “double disadvantage”. His washing machine has broken down. So he has to pay exorbitant launderette prices to wash the family’s sheets and jeans.

Tina Woodcock last had an evening out six months ago. “My brother took me to a club on my birthday.” She has three children – Charlie, who is barely a year old; Daniel, “in trouble at school because he has an attitude problem”; and Kimberley, who “wets the bed and often refuses to go to school”. Kimberley and Daniel are the children of her first partner. Charlie is the child of her second, six-year-long relationship. The correlation between mari-tal breakdown and poverty is undeniable. The problems are almost always intensified by the absent father’s failure to find work before he enters into a new relationship. The Child Support Agency has “contacted Kimberley’s dad, but he can’t pay because he hasn’t got a job. And the lady he lives with has had a baby and another is on the way.”

There is a near-irresistible temptation to blame the poor for their own poverty. But it is difficult to triumph over the combined problems of heredity and environment. Both Tina Woodcock and Marion Hacking are the product of broken homes.

Susan Oldujoye-Kilburn – a cook at the Quebec Curve public house near Limehouse Reach – has a special interest in the Millennium Dome. Her husband is employed on the site as a cleaner. He earns a little more than £5 an hour, mostly for night work.

Susan Oldujoye-Kilburn, who describes herself as “near poor”, is the child of a mixed marriage and proudly proclaims this in the hyphenated name. Her parents parted and she continued the pattern by splitting from her first husband. Then she decided to better herself. She began to help at her church’s women’s centre and took her turn in staffing the “children’s abuse hotline”. Then she got a diploma in counselling.

A second husband and two more children meant that money was more important than service to the community. For a time, she had two jobs, cooking both at the public house and for the Peabody Trust’s elderly people’s hostel. When her husband was taken on at the Dome, “somebody had to be at home with the kids. Otherwise, I would have kept both.” She speaks wistfully of more education and a better income. But she also exhibits the disabling characteristics of the very poor, insisting that she has “much to be thankful for – a roof over our heads, light, heat and our belly full at night. There are a lot worse off.” Susan Oldujoye- Kilburn is why there will never be a revolution.

The most desperate among them – the perpetual poor – never look forward because they have nothing to look forward to. The men and women whose hair and clothes and teeth proclaim an unavoidable self-neglect are instantly recognisable as the bottom rung on the social ladder. At the beginning of a new century, they are struggling to do their best for a new generation – those for whom little will change and even less improve. Although using £29m to meet their basic needs would certainly make their lives more tolerable.

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