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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 January, 2005, 11:54 GMT
A deprived area fights back
By Dominic Casciani
Community affairs correspondent

From a distance, Strathmore Crescent in Newcastle resembles a well-ordered community. But look a little closer and you'll spot the fake front doors, painted by artists disguising derelict houses as respectable homes.

Fake front doors
Artists have created a veneer of respectability

This is north Benwell in Newcastle: An area blighted by crime where terrace houses were once sold for 1. Today, some of those houses which were boarded up are being renovated as part of the drive to rebuild communities and combat anti-social behaviour.

The Home Office so likes what's happening here that minister Hazel Blears came to the estate to launch its new prong in the war on nuisance. And so, complete with journalists and a Labour party political broadcast film crew in tow, she set about telling locals they would now have the new "It's your call" hotline to get things done on local nuisance.

Whether the hotline to be rolled out to 25 towns and cities will make a difference remains to be seen - but with the second Anti-Social Behaviour Act just over a year old, has it really done anything for Benwell?

"If someone gave me the money to go away I would go now, this second."

Benwell has been a byword in Newcastle for everything that went wrong as tight-knit communities fell apart from the 1970s onwards. Many residents will openly describe it as a "dumping ground" for the city's worst problems.

Yet today houses are no longer being sold off in desperation. A good local house will now fetch up to 60,000. Some of the worst-hit terraces which were derelict for years were pulled down and replaced by new parks - although trees and other plants have been pulled out by local hooligans, say residents.

That said, crime has fallen dramatically in the area and residents got together last year to clear some 10 tonnes of rubbish - debris uncollected for years. New street wardens are winning local support and police patrols have been stepped up, say locals. Just seeing officers on the beat gives people more confidence to report problems, says Harry Taylor, head of the neighbourhood watch.

But Benwell is like many other areas where money has been thrown at the problems. It doesn't solve all of them. So while the busy neighbourhood advice office sits on one corner, directly opposite is a derelict boarded-up shop. Thanks to the cleverly-painted shutters, that's now one of the only derelict properties easily identifiable.

Smashed windows
Terraced houses once sold for 1
Brothers Peter, Tony and Al Rooney are Benwell born-and-bred. They have kept a photographic record of some of the worst properties and blame "gangster landlords" for part of the area's decline.

"We never had any problems until 1990 when there was an invasion of dysfunctional families from other areas, moved in by landlords who didn't care who they were," says Peter. "Anyone who could get out, did get out."

Al says those who remained have fought a long battle to get the authorities to recognise anti-social behaviour.

"It's basically a form of terrorism," he says. "One family who were recently moved out used to sit outside all day, throwing beer cans and abusing people. They were Neanderthal, there's no other word. They destroyed a community. Plain and simple."

'Son better in cell'

One resident pointed out a woman across a street whose son is considered a social menace, reportedly harassing people going about their business. When approached, the mother was, to say the least, frank. Her 19-year-old son, recently remanded for burglary had a heavy drugs problem and it was a blessing he was back in a cell, she said.

Crime story
Negative headlines have bugged the area...
"The only good thing about the remand is he will be off heroin for three weeks," she said. "I can't get him out of the house. When he does go, it's with these older ones who are causing all the trouble."

So are the government's much vaunted Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (asbos) having any effect here? Officials think that there may be as few as 10 seriously anti-social figures in Benwell. The two ringleaders may soon be served with asbos.

The theory goes that if you asbo the ringleaders, then nuisance crime will start to dry up as the others get the message. Then people will more willingly invest in the area, further strengthening the community and bringing about change.

But if an area like Benwell is changing, how much credit can government really claim? Is change more about active residents than tough rhetoric from ministers?

Harry Taylor
...but increased police patrols are welcomed
"It's about speaking out and taking a stand," says Harry Taylor, who is pleased to see more police patrolling and supports the asbo policies.

"People around here know that they are not on their own if they work together. It's about people themselves working to stop crime."

Home Office Minister Hazel Blears defends the tough talk of anti-social behaviour, saying it's about giving residents confidence.

But for floating voters like the Rooney family, tough laws and fighting talk are just one part of the equation - there needs to be a deeper change in how people relate to one another - harking back to principles of decency they believe were lost with their parents' generation.

"We can't go back to the world we knew when we were growing up," says Peter. "But why can't we just have back some of the values?"

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