Residents of Grangetown on Teesside - like those of other industrial, working class communities in the UK - thought life would get better after New Labour came to power. Why hasn't it?
I worked it out. It is almost exactly 5,000 days since I first went to Grangetown for Newsnight in 1990.
A bygone era - a local MP talks to housewives in 1950s Grangetown
The assignment was supposed to be about how local people were fighting the construction of an electricity power station. I came back with the story of a broken contract.
Belching industry squatted on the doorstep of a town it no longer needed. Mass unemployment was coupled with chronic ill health.
Life expectancy in Grangetown was 10 years less than in places just a few miles down the road. The community felt besieged, redundant and forgotten.
So when I rejoined the BBC earlier this year, I thought it would be interesting to return to Teesside. These days, local politicians boast of huge regeneration. They even hold out the prospect of full employment. What, I wondered, would have happened to Grangetown?
Newsnight's Picture of Britain series: Grangetown
UK broadcast on BBC Two, at 2230 BST on 20 October.
My expectation was that the place would have improved, albeit with plenty more to do. But from my first moments in the area, I realised I was mistaken.
Yes, there were the fruits of ongoing investment in nearby Middlesbrough, but as I pushed my way past the chimneys and cooling towers which surround Grangetown, I found myself in a place where something had gone desperately and tragically wrong.
The docks and the sprawling chemical works next door helped expand and sustain a fiercely proud working class town but, ultimately, it was a place that never managed to adapt to the changing demands of manufacturing industry.
The scourge of unemployment hit Grangetown hard. The one thing in its favour was a sense of community and loyalty - nowhere stronger than among the Victorian terraces in the shadow of the furnaces and cooling towers.
I have been to rundown estates before, but this was different. Street upon street of houses stood smashed, burnt, desecrated - awaiting the demolition man. It was like walking about on the film set for a war movie. Indeed, local people call it Beirut.
The residents' association told me what they thought had gone wrong. In the mid-90s, tens of millions of pounds were spent refurbishing many of the damp and crumbling council homes in Grangetown.
The work took more than a year, during which time residents were moved away. But when it was completed, many people refused to go back.
Viewed from outside, Grangetown didn't look like it had much of a future. It had a reputation. Boarded-up empty properties fuelled a sense of neglect rather than renaissance.
The only people the council and private landlords could get to go to Grangetown were "problem families".
"They (officials) came up with an idea," Paul Tuffs told me at the residents' meeting. "Put a bad family next to a good family they'll turn good, but they didn't. What happened is that the bad family caused so much trouble the good family moved out, and another bad family moved back in."
I was told how gangs of youths roam Grangetown's estates, threatening anyone who "grasses" to police. Officially, recorded crime is down. Local people think they know why.
Grangetown: Facts and figures Office for National Statistics
Unemployment claimants: 7.4%
Low income households: 68%
Incapacity benefit: 18.5%
Students with five or more GCSEs: 13%
Students with no GCSE passes: 13%
Everyone had a story to tell of violence and fear.
Jan Kitchen's experience is typical. "I was bricked for walking down the street. For walking to a shop, I was bricked," she told me.
"I had to get the doorman of the shop - they have doormen on the shops round here - to walk me home."
The derelict houses are a playground for the local kids. While I was there, I spotted young truants crawling on the rooftops, smashing tiles and windows.
It is a frightening and stressful place which local GP Dr Ifti Lone says takes its toll in terms of depression and mental health.
On average the local fire brigade attends an arson in Grangetown twice a night
"People have tried for so long but they've not seen results. That's where the despair is. If the house next door has been burned, the person next door will be wondering 'When will it happen to us?' They sit and worry."
Millions have been spent on training schemes for Grangetown, but a recent audit of 1,500 homes in the town found only 6% of 25-54 year olds had any educational qualifications at all.
More than half the population is economically inactive. Among people of working age, Grangetown has more than twice the national average on incapacity benefit.
The local council development officer for Grangetown is Joan Rees. Her vision will go some way to deciding the town's fate.
What, I asked, was the plan for the boarded up shopping arcades? The plan, it turned out, was for a superstore a bus ride away.
But local shops are often the heart of the local community, I protested.
"Well that's a very romantic notion," she replied. "People don't stand and talk at the bus stop anymore, they don't meet in the local shop."
Community spirit has been replaced by despair in Grangetown
Nevertheless, Ms Rees is optimistic about the future. I really hope she is right. But such confidence is not shared by many local people.
Jan Kitchen is moving out. Her son has had a knife held to his throat. With tears in her eyes she said: "The best thing they can do is pull the whole of Grangetown down now and start again.
"The heart's gone out of Grangetown, and you can't put the heart back into something once it's been taken away."
Fourteen years ago, Grangetown had only one thing in its favour - a community prepared to fight for its future. In 2004, that spirit has been replaced by despair.
Mark Easton's film about Grangetown - the first of a Newsnight series painting a picture of modern Britain - was broadcast on 20 October.
Newsnight is broadcast on BBC Two at 2230 BST every weeknight in the UK.
What is your reaction to this piece? Did you watch the programme? Have you had a similar experience?
I can only agree with other comments made about this, nearly every town in the North East has its Grangetown in one way or another. If it was not for the good people of the North East it would be even worse, what we need is investment and an end to ridiculous schemes that do nothing to help the people, but a return to community values. I should know, I was assaulted in July for trying to stop vandalism and for setting up a resident association but set it up we did and have done such a lot, including the enhancing of our area. I come from Middlesex and have nothing but admiration for the people of the North East who at the end of the day has suffered catastrophic job losses, but still keep going. You are the best regardless of what some faceless bureaucrat says.
Peter Black, Seaham, UK
I watched part of this programme and was shocked and amazed at the same time. The utterly daft planning ideas were the things that really stood out. Moving problem or bad families in on the assumption that their neighbours will do the work of the social services for them.... Planning a bright new shopping centre just a bus ride away because having local shops and the like is romantic... Maybe it's modern and forward-thinking, maybe it's just trendy, but as was pointed out, having meeting places - shops, youth clubs, cinemas, a church hall, even - are what helps a community to be one.
I wonder if anyone has stopped and asked the local youths why they do what they do. I do feel, and this programme gave it some focus, that for all our advances into this new century, we've forgotten so many things about why things worked as they did fifty years back. Unemployed youths, but a dearth of skilled workers in the maintenance and construction industries; and Blair wants everyone to have a degree. Can you spot the bit in the middle that fell out of the modernisation bandwagon?
Steve Brereton, York, UK
Why did you only take bits of Grangetown that were negative? You didn't want to know any of the good bits - typical of the news. There are a lot of people working really hard but you have only spoken to a chosen few who don't have nice things to say.
Leanne Reed, Grangetown
I live in Grangetown and it's not as bad as people make out. Yes we have problems but even better estates have problems. The difference is that as a community we are dealing with the problems. We have I think in the last year, have started to turn things around for the better and people are thinking more positive
Michael Crane, Grangetown, England
Grangetown grew out of the industrialisation of the area after WWII, where the working man had a right to walk to work. The Wilton Chemical complex employed some 30,000 people in the 1960s and 70s, many of whom came from the surrounding townships, including Grangetown. As the productivity increases demanded by the uneven playing field of the global chemical and steel industries led to a dramatic shrinking of the workforce, those who had jobs moved away to the more picturesque areas (of which there are many on Teesside) and the car became king.
This has left the elderly and infirm, the uneducated and unempowered, the criminal and the victim to wallow in a self-perpetuating cycle of grief and depression. The fact that areas like this still exist in 2004 is offensive. The UK is in the top 10 economies in the world. It is often said that we are the wealthiest generation of humans to walk the planet. All politicians, irrespective of colour, have let the people of Grangetown down, from their squalid housing to their crumbling schools. Shame on them; you wouldn't think that Tony Blair's constituency was only about 15 miles away!
Since Grangetown is only 15miles from Tony Blair's constituency, maybe this report will focus his mind more on domestic issues. It might even encourage the government to give Cleveland Police city status funding, and not be in the position they are in now facing drastic cuts in man power due to lack of funds! Maybe the people who say that New Labour has improved life by increased police and nurses should come here and view the reality for themselves. Finally, it's not just Grangetown that is the problem here, the whole of the area has these problems.
Phill S, Stockton
I think the story of Grangetown is similar to a lot of places nowadays. Much of my family is from the Dagenham area in Essex which has suffered incredibly through manufacturing closures. But worse, I think, is the loss of a community spirit. I don't know what has destroyed it in so many parts of England. I think it's a number of factors such as increasing individualism, people moving to and from areas after only a short period, thuggery, and a lack of shared ideology.
Patrick Leahy, Cambridge, UK
I hail from South Africa where theft and murder are the order of the day. Perpetrators are impoverished and uneducated. There is no work for them. What's Britain's excuse? There are thousands of jobs available to people who are prepared to work. Lazy yobs with no physical disabilities don't need to work as long as the government supports them and their drug habits. Am I the only person in the country who can see a problem with this?
Martin, Henley-on-Thames, UK
The problem is not Grangetown, it's the problem families which have been moved there. We really need to address this issue, moving them from neighbourhood to neighbourhood is not a solution. There is no quick fix with these families, Children grow up in an atmosphere which reinforces the belief that the state is not ran for them, so they can please themselves. They grow up to cause trouble, and when they have children of their own, the whole cycle starts again. Families with problems need help, help to believe in themselves and break the cycle. Moving them on is telling them they were correct to believe they were outcasts, and should live as such.
Francis Anderson, Reading, UK
These people have the opportunity to get out and do better for themselves, the point is the welfare state has made it too hard for them to do that. Easy money in their pockets makes it hard to leave, twice the national average on incapacity benefit, I wonder how many are actually entitled to this benefit in this town. My husband and I are prime examples of this kind of town, the thing is we chose not to live a life of benefits and council estates, my husband is the first person in his living family to own his own house.
Jennifer, Netherlands (ex UK)
Are there any churches in Grangetown? In the Third world, they are often the only hopeful presence in broken places.
Mark has got a glimpse of the future for this country. With jobs continuing to be offshored to cut costs and improve shareholder returns. The fact that companies who already make hundreds of millions in profit or even billions feel that to save that extra million or perhaps less it is acceptable to destroy communities is sad, morals and ethics do not exist in the modern business world. The hope that the global economy will produce a better world is wrong; it will produce one where many people in all nations live in poverty.
If you have serious money in shares and investment funds you will be ok, but those of us who work to support our lives are in trouble. The academics point to better returns and improved pension funds etc. but they miss the vital point, very few people will have the money to invest or be employed to have such a fund!. I fear this country has forgotten its working populations needs.
JP, Norwich, England
I was working for the local Council in Middlesbrough in the early 90s and now and again had to visit Grangetown as part of my duties. I remember being warned by colleagues not to leave my car and to keep the engine running if I was sat stationary. The streets were devoid of people and bricks were strewn across the roads. It was quite terrifying and a terrible shame. I had hoped that it would improve. Perhaps demolition is the only answer.
Ian Lorman, Northampton, England
Grangetown is not the only area in and around Middlesbrough to have developed into the state which it is now found, underinvestment is rife at the moment yet all the area is offered is a north east assembly which will result in more much needed money for the area eaten up by even more politicians and spent on further bridges for the Newcastle quayside.
The problem with Grangetown's unemployment is not because there are no jobs, it is because the people are unwilling to work. I used to work in the Employment office in the neighbouring Eston office, and the amount of people who used to sign on who where not bothered whether they got a job or not, and looking at their address they would be from Grangetown. I have every sympathy for the good people who live in Grangetown.
Blame for the area's current state must lie with the council who persistently home trouble families in the area. I remember the redevelopment in Grangetown - the houses that were built were very nice and had the potential to increase the area standard to that of places like Normanby. But within weeks the properties were boarded up and fire bombed. Just goes to show that people can't have anything these days. However this problem of bad neighbours is not limited to Grangetown or Teesside even.
This article was very interesting to read. As a former resident of Middlesbrough, which South Bank is a part, I can honestly say I know what Mark Easton is talking about. Local people are scared to go to South Bank as it is well known for its reputation. It's very surprising really as nearby estates are classed as well respected. I think the town can only get worse. If only the council could have done something about it back in a decade ago.
C, former Middlesbrough resident
This is what really annoys me. We pay taxes so that people can carry on living in areas where there are new jobs, in unsustainable communities and wasted grants to attract industry back. If it was worth investing there, especially given the cheap cost of land etc they would have by now. The town was built to provide workers for jobs that no longer exists maybe it's about time the town did the same.
Ben Shepherd, Farnham, Surrey
The first thing they should do is ban air rifles! Try driving through Grangetown at night and you'll be lucky not to be shot at by gangs of air rifle waving youths. Grange town has had a reputation my whole like and it's got worse, not better.
You are incorrect to suggest that things haven't got better for the people of Grangetown under Labour. Particularly as it's unfair to measure this time-frame from 1990 - seven years before Labour came to power. The residents of Grangetown will have benefited significantly from more police, nurses, and doctors. They will have also seen an increase in pensions and child benefits and winter fuel allowance not to mention a minimum wage for the increased number of people who will be in work. All these policies work in favour of the less well off. It's easy to quote a few individual stories to paint and negative picture but to do the fashionable things, and blame it on Labour is tedious and wrong. Incidentally, I grew up in one of Bristol's worst areas - similar to Grangetown I'm sure - and the same lack of self respect applied then as it does now.
Shaun Parker, London
Stories like this are all too common in the industrial wastelands of the North. The village in which I grew up was once a thriving mining community but now there appears little, work is available in call centres two or three bus rides away which pays nothing like the mining did, and offers little in the way of esteem. The main bulk of the village has been pulled down but the problem is that the majority of the decent folk move out in their search for work leaving housing stock bought up by housing associations and being used to house problem families and drug addicts which further perpetuates a downward spiral.
Richard Speight, Barnsley, UK
The key to the modern job market is flexibility and mobility. There are jobs but you have to make yourself available. If your area is in decline there is little point protesting that industry should come to you or that somebody else should provide you with a job. In an age where most jobs are office based and many of those are now going to India I simply can't understand why school leavers stay around towns with no jobs. I didn't and I have never been unemployed. There are jobs in the South East for those prepared to come and get them.
Even if you move everybody out and demolish the whole town, you will only have moved the people who made the place what it is to somewhere else, to begin the process again there.
You state: "Residents of Grangetown thought life would get better after New Labour came to power. Why hasn't it?" Could the answer be simply that New Labour, under Mr Blair, is just another conservative party, but with a different name? The true working classes no longer have any political representation.
Alan Hall, Evesham, UK
Alas, it is only too common these days due to liberal attitudes of local councillors during the 60s and 70s and also down to the apathy of parents and neighbours. I fear it may be too late to reclaim some of our estates now. God help us all if we don't.
Graham Ashley, Cardiff, South Wales
I am distraught to hear about the living and social conditions of Grangetown. I am amazed that any government would allow such a favourable city from the 1960s, to become a violent wasteland. I hope Mr Blair takes this BBC report seriously and makes lengths to turn Grangetown around. Many other places in the UK, like Marsh Farm in Luton have been awarded government funding in the form of grants, and they have begun changing the town for the better.
Alan Davies, Luton, UK
I originally come from Redcar. When thinking about moving North again last year, I went to Grangetown out of curiosity as the house prices were so low. Naturally I was expecting the area to be run down, but was shocked at what an appalling place it had become, it really does need to be completely knocked down.
Helen, Ashford, Kent
It is common practice, in Scotland, for new middle class developments to be built in or near to anti-social council estates, but it has been a badly thought out disaster! Problem families and the professional middle classes simply don't interact, and no amount of social engineering will change this.
I've been a student in Liverpool for over two years now and the picture Mr Easton paints of Grangetown sounds all too familiar. Until recently, I lived in such an area. The problem begins when one house empties, and is boarded up, and that has a knock on effect and before long much of the street is like it, which in turn has a knock on effect for local businesses. Then, you are left with a ghost town, with mob rule, a gang culture and where the bad intimidate the good. Much of Liverpool is now like that, with few exceptions. Boris Johnson take note!
Marcus Stead, Liverpool
My reaction on reading this piece is one of pure despair. Here is a community which has been kicked in the teeth since the 70s and is teetering on the brink of the abyss. Where I live in the South, all I ever get is politicians whingeing about why we are losing out in government grants to the North. This is why. Andrew McCormick, Basingstoke
This is quite an eye-opener for many people living in the South. This is something for us all to remember when we next complain of too much tax revenue going to the most needy! We should be ashamed of ourselves!
Chris Williams, Solihull, UK
I know a few people that come from places with this feeling of having been neglected and forgotten but sometimes the truth is that the majority of the community do not wish to change anything and I think that those who do need to come up with a different solution other than relying on the official people that have so failed them in the past to solve the problems.
Rachel June, Hitchin, Herts
It is amazing that the government and local councils pour so much public money into places like this and expect results. Pulling it all down and re-starting does sound like the easy way out, but how do you do anything else with a place that has so many problems and bad feelings attached to it?