Britain’s sink estates can – and must – be turned around

August 22, 2014

Earlier this week we saw reports of the alleged stabbing murder of a teenager by a gang in Hackney. Meanwhile, dawn raids have targeted gangs supposedly planning violence at this weekend’s Notting Hill Carnival. The Met’s Gang Crime Command strategy is clearly showing results, but even Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe acknowledges the need for engagement with gang members and potential gang recruits outside the realms of law enforcement. Today’s publication of my report for Policy Exchange, The Estate We’re In, is a timely contribution as to how we can start to tackle some of the root causes of violence and deprivation on our housing 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. Even the most notorious estates, though, can be improved. Targeted interventions driven by dedicated individuals have made an enormous difference.

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 porta-cabin 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, has high levels of unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, child poverty and low educational attainment. Claire Arymar set up a Neighbourhood Office in a house on the estate. She solved residents’ problems by acting as a bridge to local agencies. She helped them apply for funding, set up resident associations and organised community events. She eliminated arson on the estate by getting the local fire brigade, Blackwatch, to play football with the local lads. They don’t set fires anymore because they are frightened the firemen will clip them round the ear or, worse, stop playing football with them.

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. Communities can be mapped out so problems are not left to simmer, and interventions can become more targeted. Local partners can work collaboratively together. That is why Policy Exchange is calling on the government to pledge that our sink estates will be transformed within the next decade, through the empowerment of local people and their communities.  We can no longer turn a blind eye to the problems faced by so many residents of our estates. It is time to help these communities to rebuild themselves, enable local teams to work together and deliver the most needed interventions, and deliver real change on the ground.

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