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On the Oxford estate nicknamed ‘the city of screaming tyres’ – a lesson from the underclass

1998 March 14
by Paul Vallely

IT’S A dangerous thing, irony. I was in the act of transferring money to my pocket to leave my wallet safely inside the house.”I think you’ll be all right carrying money through the streets. Daylight mugging isn’t that common here,” said Jim Hewitt (of whom more shortly). I looked at him and realised he was gently pulling my leg.

I was disposed to believe the worst. As I parked my car I noted the ominous broken glass by the roadside. This may have been Oxford, the city of the dreaming spires, but I was on the peripheral housing estate of Blackbird Leys, which was dubbed the city of the screaming tyres when it briefly became the Brands Hatch of teenage car thieves at the beginning of the decade. (There are traffic calming humps everywhere now.)

In fact the glass fragments by my ancient Volvo were not the product of some delinquent radio-snatcher but the aftermath of a visit by an Oxford City Council van which had backed into the front of a car belonging to a local resident.

Blackbird Leys, despite its splendidly bucolic name, is one of the “20 most deprived parts of the country” which Gordon Brown is supposed to be targeting in the budget next week as part of New Labour’s New Deal drive against poverty. It did not appear so in the early spring sunshine.

If the 30-year-old houses were not exactly neat they were far from unkempt. The gardens were under control and the cherry trees and winter jasmine were in blossom. Most of the cars were considerably less antique than mine, and all but one had wheels and tyres.

The social indicators tell their own story. A majority of the households here rely on benefit. One in 10 of the 14,000 population are single mothers. Unemployment is almost double that of the rest of the city – the nearby Cowley car works now cover less than a quarter of the site occupied when the British motor industry was at its peak. Joblessness is particularly high among the young. And yet the local people don’t seem to feel deprived.

The aforesaid Jim Hewitt, who is a community worker employed by the ecumenical church at the centre of the estate, seems quite happy to walk through the streets carrying the funds of the estate’s self-help savings fund.

Mrs Jean Harwood, a sprightly 68-year-old who meets him at the community centre to put a few pence into her account (she’s saving for three or four days bed and breakfast at Eastbourne or Newquay) says that if she won the lottery she wouldn’t move. Even at night Sue Mollington is happy to walk home in the dark without fear when the estate’s Spotlight Theatre School session is over.

Yes, Blackbird Leys has its problems. Its shopping, transport and health facilities are grossly inadequate. The nearest bank is an 80p return bus ride away. The new extension of 1,000 homes has no shops at all. The sight of women struggling on long walks carrying the week’s shopping in bulging carrier bags is common.

But the spirit of enterprise among the people we are now told to call the underclass is uplifting. Gordon Brown’s plans for more cash for such estates comes after a Whitehall analysis showing that, although huge amounts of public money are consumed there, most of it is passive spending such as benefit payments. The Chancellor now wants to tilt the balance of spending there towards creating work opportunities and improving education and training. To find out how, he could do worse than take a tour of the self- help initiatives of Blackbird Leys.

It is not just the credit union, which now has 200 adult, and as many children, savers. (It also lends to members at just under 13 per cent, compared with the 35-50 per cent which finance companies offer on the estate, and the 200 per cent of the loan sharks).

There are, in addition, after-school playschemes, parent and toddler groups, family centres, parenting courses and much else. As well as providing services such activities build the skills and confidence of local people so that they can go on into employment.

Amanda Jones, a mother of four who is a key figure in the Dovecote After School club, is, at the age of 32, about to take up a job at a supermarket off the estate. “I have discovered skills here I didn’t know I had – managing bank accounts, paying wages, authorising spending for equipment, organising events and coaches for trips.”

It is the same at the credit union. “We thought we were too thick to be on a committee,” said the assistant secretary Liz Seeney, “but now here we are using a computer.”

Jim Hewitt has so far trained two treasurers who have gone on to get related jobs, one with the local health authority, the other in computer work.

At another group, Lemon Juice, in one of the houses on the isolated new estate I met a group of single mothers in their late teens and early 20s who get together twice a week. Their conversation was as jumbled as the pile of toys in the middle of the room with which half a dozen toddlers played. (The estate’s toy library costs 50p per toy per week.)

The talk was of straightening hair by blow-drying, of how GPs never listen to what they say, of what they will do when the government cuts benefits to force them out to work, of absent fathers, of the pounds 120 a week fees at the private nursery nearby, of how you eke out pounds 87.90 a week to cover gas, electric, water, insurance, TV licence, phone, clothing, food, nappies and teething gel.

Without the group they would live lives of isolation. “By getting together they have taken the first step toward helping themselves,” says Jim Hewitt, who sees the solution to the estate’s problems in striking the right balance between proper parenting and economic productivity.

Grants from Gordon Brown on Tuesday to multiply and develop such initiatives would be welcome “but short-term initiatives which expect results by the end of the year or by the next election won’t work. You can’t change a mindset on welfare in five years. We need a strategic approach on many fronts – childcare, welfare, drug abuse, crime. New money needs to be long-term, and you have to consult people at the grassroots more to get the ownership of ordinary people. It’s a long job.”

Hewitt should know. He has been working and living there for 18 years. At one of the estate’s schools, Wesley Green, the deputy head Daphne James came to a similar realisation.

“If I’m going to tell the children it is OK to come from here, then I have to live here too,” she says.

Boosting the self-esteem of her pupils is the real answer she feels. Groups like the Spotlight Theatre School do it for some of them; its tap and ballet-dancing pupils successfully audition for shows at the London Palladium and a group performed with Cliff Richard and Vera Lynn in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace for the VE Day anniversary recently.

But Miss James is targeting all her kids. She has developed a programme for the school which she calls Eagle Potential. A group of lively 12-year- olds talked me through their workbooks with genuine enthusiasm for its sleepovers at school, home-made Outward Bound activities and work with old people. Most interesting perhaps was the self and group assessments she has built in.

“We found that other people think we’re capable of more than we thought ourselves,” said a boy called Daniel, wide-eyed as if he was still surprised at the verdict. “It makes you feel good”. Talking to him and his classmates made me feel good too.


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