Friday, 16 September 2016

To Hellamy and Back

What the ‘Big Society’ did for a ‘Sink’ estate.
Boarded up property on Bellamy Road
Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, in fact most major UK cities still have their sink estates. They exist as media magnets when a dystopian urban narrative is required. They inspire a gritty lexicon of social catastrophe; ASBO-littered landscapes of drug-fuelled misbehaviour, burning cars, broken, urine-smelling lifts, stabbed teenagers and terrified old ladies. For a visiting hack who doesn’t live there, such a bad story is cash in the bank. But what if you do live there?

    Making his first speech as Prime Minister in 1997, as a venue, Tony Blair chose South London’s rundown Aylesbury Estate, where he promised the 7,500 residents he intended to help "the poorest people in our country who have been forgotten by government". This was one of many similar New Labour speeches where hearts bled over the disparities between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ environs. Blair used the term ‘sink estates’. Such worthy sentiments no doubt denoted the plight of those poor condemned souls existing at the very depths of British society; or maybe he was hinting at animals living in overcrowded conditions.
London's Aylesbury Estate: designated a 'Sink' by Tony Blair
Eight years after his ‘sink estates’ speech the Daily Mail recognised in 2005 that nothing had changed, referring to the Aylesbury Estate as ‘like visiting hell’s waiting room’.

However, Blair’s speeches were made in those distant heady days before Chilcot, his Faith Foundation, his erroneous position as Middle East ‘Envoy’ and subsequent globe-trotting millionaire lifestyle as promoter of Louis Vuitton luggage, advising U.S. Banks and dubious dictators. Still, as Tony would probably tell us, if you can’t transform the world, transform yourself.
   On February 25 2010 a BBC film crew arrived on the deeply denigrated Bellamy Road Estate in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. The estate was built in the 1960s to house an influx of miners from the North East.
Pancake race on Bellamy Road in the 1970s
For the BBC, it had become a reporter’s alliterative dream as the crew immediately dubbed the location as ‘Hellamy’. However, when the 20 minute piece went out that night on BBC East Midlands few people living in the estate’s 700 dwellings recognised it as the place they lived in. The reporter soon found the grim locals he needed; the beleaguered shopkeeper, the frustrated council tenant, an angry councillor. There was also an elusive, juicy back story which remains buried and has never been resolved; money from central government for estate projects had been funnelled through Mansfield District Council into the Bellamy Road office of the Sherwood Community Development Trust, and an alleged £70,000 had gone missing. Whatever was wrong with ‘Hellamy’ Road, it would be featured, including a bellicose exchange between malcontents and Mansfield’s elected Mayor.  Carefully omitted were the innovative unpaid efforts of numerous volunteer tenants and residents on the estate who had been working to improve their community since 2004.

   With 42 collieries and 40,000 miners Nottinghamshire was once one of Europe’s most successful coalfields. In the region of Mansfield alone in 1987 there were 13 working pits. Today there are none. You’ll still find the odd tattooed ex-miner in Mansfield, but he’s more than likely manning the checkout aisle at Tesco. This is an angry, defiant town looking to punish a system which deprived it of its pride and industry. Thus, Europe was a handy scapegoat; a spiteful 72% of the electorate voted for Brexit.
   Yet at least, giving credit where due, Tony Blair’s ‘Third way’ and New Labour did make faltering attempts to honour that Aylesbury Estate speech. Long before Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ and ‘In it together’, Britain’s deprived neighbourhoods received a shot in the arm known as the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund.  The NRF’s origin was based in Tony Blair’s declaration that no one in future decades should be seriously disadvantaged by where they lived.  The Neighbourhood Renewal Fund cost the Treasury about £500m per year. Poor neighbourhoods also received extra inputs through Sure Start Children’s Centres, Decent Homes, Housing Market Renewal, New Deal for Communities (NDC), Excellence in Cities and other assorted hopeful schemes. In the decade following the NRF’s launch, it all seemed to be working.

    On Mansfield’s Bellamy Road Estate various schemes were set up, projects to improve housing, a more active police presence, two neighbourhood wardens were employed. The NRF’s estate committee held lively monthly meetings. In January 2005 the team launched their own quarterly 8 page estate newsletter, the colourful Bellamy Bugle, which is still going strong after 55 editions. Old properties were bulldozed, new housing built, an award-winning community charity shop opened, and through the input of the YMCA, an internet café, the only one in the Mansfield area, was opened. Both District and County Councillors got on board, and funds became available for various seasonal events on the estate, a Christmas  pantomime in the Community Centre, and street parties throughout the summer. The dedicated Tenants and Residents’ Association organised days out for residents, and opened the small community centre on Saturdays for people to meet, have a cup of tea and a chat. A decent plot of local land was made available for a Community Allotment, which remains a highly a successful project. Bellamy Road school children also had the advantage of the Homework Club, a project which provides a tranquil, safe, learning environment for children between the ages of 5-11 to seek help with their homework. On their way home from school, they could complete their homework on the computers in the Y5 Internet Café and receive a meal and a drink. Crime and vandalism began to fall. New Labour’s investments appeared to represent value for money.

   All this progress hit the buffers in May 2010 as the Cameron/Clegg Coalition came to power. The Tory obsession with reducing the size of the central state could not accommodate the altruistic notion of ‘regeneration’ or ‘renewal’ of deprived neighbourhoods. Since 2010 any stream of funding which supported regeneration has been scrapped. Labour’s work in establishing area agreements between central and local government, regional spatial strategies, Government Offices for the regions and Regional Development Agencies was consigned to the waste basket. In its place,  never forgetting to link  it’s ideas with the Coalition’s deficit reduction policy,  the Department for Communities and Local Government took a virtually cost-free leap of faith, ostensibly to ‘give greater power and responsibility to local communities’ aligned with stimulating growth to encourage regeneration, with central government in a ‘strategic and supportive role’. According to CASE, the London School of Economics’ Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, the ‘Big Society’ goal replacing Neighbourhood Renewal was that “local economies prosper, parts of the country previously over-reliant on public funding see a resurgence in private sector enterprise and employment, and that everyone gets to share in the resulting growth … mechanisms include the Regional Growth Fund, New Homes Bonus, reforms of the planning system and investments in infrastructure projects such as the high speed rail network, Crossrail and the Olympic legacy..” Under the oppressive umbrella of continuing austerity and Brexit, this was all expected to inspire community and voluntary organisations as part of the ‘Big Society’.

   For Mansfield, the advent of the Coalition in 2010 had all the effect of a social bulldozer. Other deprived areas of the town Pleasley, Ravensdale and Oak Tree Lane would all lose their NRF support.  Cameron’s ‘We’re all in it together’ was simply cynical salt in the wound of slashed funding. Under the new, post-Brexit administration, there’s no place neighbourhood renewal, but a hefty £30 billion for  the exclusive HS2 project, a train service which is expected to carry 26,000 people per hour, which will mean nothing in Mansfield; the nearest planned HS2 station at Toton is 25 miles away.

After 2013 David Cameron never used the term ‘Big Society’ again. In 2014 after much criticism of Cameron’s involvement, the ‘Big Society Network’ collapsed, followed in 2015 by a critical final ‘Big Society Audit’ published by Civil Exchange. It made depressing reading.

   Despite all this doom and gloom, if that 2010 BBC film crew should return to Bellamy Road today, expecting to make more dystopian hay with grainy images of ASBO gangs of drug-dealing hoodies and burning cars, they may well be in for disappointment. The so-called ‘Big Society’ which Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith and others thought they’d ‘invented’ was already in place long before they came to power. Certainly, the end of NRF funding has been a kick in the teeth for such estates, but on Bellamy Road, volunteers rose up and strove to keep community progress in motion. In tandem with dedicated councillors from the town’s District Council and County Council, the Bellamy Road Tenants and Residents’ Association constantly scours every available source of charitable funding. They’ve found it with the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, the Big Lottery Fund, the Nottinghamshire Community Foundation, and from the commercial sector, Tesco and N-Power’s Renewable Energy Wind Farm at nearby Rainworth. Even with its financial wings severely clipped, the Sure Start Children’s Centre struggles on to provide a service. The Bellamy Bugle, the estate’s quarterly newsletter is now printed for free by local print giants Linney plc. One disaster was the closure of the Y5 Internet Café, but the YMCA bounced back to keep the premises available for the continuing homework club. The summertime events and street parties remain, as do the popular coffee mornings and other events at the community centre. Various awards have been won by community volunteers, and all this has been in defiance of an austerity-fixated government whose mealy-mouthed proclamations on community and social structure have proved to be nothing but sardonic sound bites.
   However, Bellamy Road’s past reputation still precludes it from any positive mention in local media. Press releases about positive community events on the estate are generally ignored, unlike a burning car, a drugs bust or a spot of fly-tipping.
In the final analysis, perhaps there is such a thing as ‘people power’. It simply needs more ordinary people to realise this. It could be that both Tony Blair’s and Cameron’s notion of society ultimately meant the same thing; the people they recognised as being ‘in it together’ certainly weren’t the people of Bellamy Road Estate in Mansfield. They were the rich.
For God's sake you two, CHEER UP: you're RICH!
As Blair told Jeremy Paxman on
Newsnight in 2005: “It’s not a burning ambition of mine to make sure that David Beckham earns less money.”  It would be nice to imagine Becks and Posh sparing a few quid for Bellamy Road. Any bets the BBC would turn out for that event.

SOURCES: BBC Nottingham Fall of Mansfield's Bellamy Road estate 25.2.2010

LSE SOCIAL POLICY IN A COLD CLIMATE Working Paper 6   July 201 Labour’s Record on Neighbourhood Renewal in England: Policy, Spending and Outcomes 1997-2010  WP05   Labour’s record on Neighbourhood Renewal in England  Ruth Lupton, Alex Fenton and Amanda Fitzgerald


The Plump said...

This is the money quote:
"The so-called ‘Big Society’ which Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith and others thought they’d ‘invented’ was already in place long before they came to power."

Absolutely. There is an historic trend in social reportage to see places from the outside as hell holes unrecognisable to many on the inside (Orwell does it in The Road to Wigan Pier). It's misleading. People are always working and collaborating where they can to do things for themselves. It's the sort of thing that some of the 19th Century people I have written about emphasised, but the best person on it more recently is Colin Ward (though he died a couple of years ago).

The critical thing is that whether you call it community development or the big society, it doesn't half work better with resources. That means the schemes that the last Labour government put in place and the involvement of institutions, like us in CLL, were invaluable. So too are simple things like banks and credit unions to stop the payday loan extortioners from being the only source of necessary credit. The collapse of funding and involvement is a crime.

But this doesn't mean that everything goes with them when they are withdrawn. The crap from the right about dependency culture paints a picture of hopeless, depressed and helpless people needing a kick up the backside. Lefties go on about deprived, hopeless, and depressed people needing guidance. Whenever I was out and about I met shrewd, enterprising, imaginative and aspirational people. All they need is respect and investment. What they don't need is patronising by an elite who wants a fantasy people on which to exercise their fantasy politics.

Big speech over. Great piece.

roybaintonwrites said...

Thanks, Stoutmeister; I rarely get comments but this one's particularly welcome!