The Wolseley Road estate before (left) and after its transformation
By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine
Graffiti. Muggings. Fly tipping. Drug taking. Vandalism. What to do when a housing estate is this blighted? Knock it down and start again is one solution, but it's extreme.
A year ago, young mother Nicola wanted out of Plymouth's notorious Wolseley Road Flats. By day she looked out on a rubbish-strewn courtyard, scorched crack spoons discarded in the grass near the swings her children played on.
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By night she was too afraid to leave her ground floor flat, under siege as hooded youths from nearby estates kicked in the security doors to party in the stairwell.
Her neighbours felt the same. When trouble kicked off, as it so frequently did, they just shut their doors and hoped it went away. But then Silla Carron, who transformed her own grim estate in north London and won a Pride of Britain award for her efforts, started knocking on doors with a plan of action...
1. UNITE - AND GALVANISE - RESIDENTS
It is a symptom of modern life that few people know their neighbours. And with doors locked to keep out a threatening outside world, there are precious few chances to get to know one another.
Support galvanised: Residents of the Wolseley Road estate muster
But collective action is vital. Start by saying hello, says Ms Carron. And organise a residents' meeting to raise concerns. Find somewhere to meet - even if it's someone's flat, in the first instance - badger people into coming and ask what they want done to improve matters.
Some may well say demolish the lot - the course of action taken recently in Manchester's New Islington, where a council estate was flattened and smart low-rise houses built in its place. But a few changes can make enough of a difference to both the look of a place and to residents' attitudes to act as an incentive to do more.
"People need to come out from behind their doors and take responsibility," says Ms Carron. "If it's outside your door, it's to do with you."
2. IMPROVE SECURITY
With all but two of the estate's 17 security doors broken, people could just walk in off the street. And they did.
Steel casing around pipes prevents climbing, while old doors make way for new
Break-ins were a constant fear. And the communal stairwells were magnets for those from neighbouring streets to drink, take drugs, play loud music and hang out - none of which they would do on their own doorsteps. With scant exterior lighting, walking around the estate's dark nooks and crannies felt decidedly threatening.
But with new lights fitted and security doors that open outwards - making them impossible to kick in - residents began to feel safer, and vandalism and anti-social behaviour in the stairwells ceased.
3. RECRUIT HELP
From local police, anti-social behaviour units and from councillors and housing officials at the local authority. These people are paid to look after residents' interests.
Make sure they know what the problems are. Provide examples - detailed descriptions or photos of troublemakers, for instance, or photos of broken security doors - and "don't take no for an answer," says Ms Carron.
"If you don't like something, don't just sit there moaning. Moan to the council; it's their job to work for you. Then something might get done."
4. MONEY MONEY MONEY
Security comes at a cost, as does building work. But funding is available for all manner of projects. Find out what's on offer and start applying. On Ms Carron's own estate, she raised some £6m for building improvements, a mini golf ground and a five-a-side pitch with tennis court markings for those two weeks every year when the nation gets their racquets out.
At Wolseley Road, the tenants talked hundreds of thousands of pounds out of the council for a paint job, a new roof, lighting and new security doors. Today it looks like a new estate.
5. BE VIGILANT
Vandalism and anti-social behaviour can be tackled, in number
One person alone will be reluctant to confront trouble. But there is strength in numbers if residents as a whole make it clear that vandalism, drunken or drug-fuelled rowdiness, bullying and littering will not be tolerated on their patch.
As well as a Tenants Association, the residents of Wolseley Road began a neighbourhood watch group. By taking charge of their own security, by reporting suspicious behaviour and providing descriptions, they not only felt safer but actually became safer as trouble evaporated from the estate.
6. MAKE OWN CHOICES
The Clarence Way estate where Silla (inset) lives, and helped transform
As if piling insult on top of injury, the vandalised communal stairwells at Wolseley Road were painted an unpleasantly institutional gold. Rather than await a vat o' institutionally hued paint from the council, the residents asked for colour charts to choose their own scheme when the estate was given its facelift.
"It used to be tatty here and now it's not. It feels like our estate," says one boy. "We chose the colours and it doesn't feel like someone else's property now."
7. ENGENDER RESPECT
Residents take more care of their surroundings when they feel a place is their own - and that includes children. Those at Wolseley Road formed children's gardening club to clean up the neglected flower beds and plant colourful primula and hardy vegetables.
And when a boy from a neighbouring street pulled up all the plants, the kids were incensed. They quickly put the vandalised plants back in the soil - the flowers are flourishing once again, and the vandal hasn't been back.
8. MEETING SPACE
Whether it's a tidied up playground or a communal flat for meetings, parent-and-baby groups and coffee mornings, somewhere people can come to find a friendly face and to air ideas is important.
This also provides a central information point for council and community notices.
9. THROW A PARTY
Residents of Wolseley Road celebrate the transformation
"People get so used to locking their doors, and it stays that way," says Ms Carron. "While the building is changing and the atmosphere is changing, it's a good time to let people know they can trust themselves to come out and bring their community back together."
Having organised several successful festivals on her own estate, Clarence Way in Camden, she encourages those at Wolseley Road to do the same. A bouncy castle, a barbeque and a DJ tempt residents out of their flats - even if for some it's to hang over the balcony - and actually speak to each other.
10. KEEP AT IT
Tenants associations and neighbourhood watch groups across the nation know that momentum ebbs and flows, and that often it comes down to a handful of can-do types to keep things going. "Without support, nothing will change," says Ms Carron.
A year on, the estate is clean and safe with a growing sense of community. What does young mum Nicola now think? "It's looking great with the kids playing outside, it feels a lot safer. It's brilliant."
Below is a selection of your comments.
I think it's a brilliant idea! I believe that it is vitally important for neighbourhoods to revigorate the sense of community - not only to reduce anti-social behaviour but to give people a feeling of pride about their housing and own circumstances. A tight-knit community also helps to reduce isolation, thus promote well-being in numerous ways.
What a heart warming story. These tales are not confined to housing estates but cover the length and breadth of England. Keeping up the pressure on the local council to get it right is one large part of the answer. Well done to Wolseley Road.
Tim Little, Twickenham
Admirable though the rhetoric of saving a place rather than demolishing it is, and the resident's efforts are surely to be commended, its a pity that the angular refurbished paint scheme makes the terracing appear reminiscent of a WWII U boat pen....
Mike Morgan, Wolverhampton
I've been living in brazil for eight months now. What they do in their blocks of flats is have secure wall all way round and two secure doors. In the blocks the second floors are for parties and BBQs for residents. There is also a permanent cleaner for that block that you pay for maintainance, which includes water and gas. It costs about £35 a month. It feels good and safe for kids, who also have there own area.
In Norway, in similar housing schemes/projects, one or two of the housing units are converted into a communal meeting place. They are fully fitted, with catering facilities and are also used as a venue for functions. The tenants form a committee to administer the venue and establish a hire fee for its use. The people who hire are responsible for cleaning up/damage etc.
Glen Ward Taylor, Glasgow
Stories like this are truely inspirational and something that we can all learn a lesson from.
I live in a block of flats and I admit that it's easy to come home from work at the end of the day and close the door on the world. Sometimes I don't see any other residents for weeks on end! It would be fantasic if community spirit could be rebuilt, especially in the towns and cities - it just takes a little effort from everyone.
Heather, Plymouth, UK
This is fantastic. A positive, creative and inclusive story about people taking charge.
This is how the world changes, from the ground up.
Graham Woods, Birmingham, UK
What a wonderful good news story. Mrs Silla Carron deserves an honour for her brave and sensible approach to neighbourhood blight and social deprivation. When you think how many hundreds of billions of pounds that local government (throughout the UK) have spent over the past 20/30 years on community development schemes to little or no affect, the transformation she has helped to bring to her own community, via collective self help, is truely amazing and awe-inspiring. It is something local councils should be required to try and replicate thoughout run down and deprived estates nationally. Very well done to the residents Wolseley Road Flats, Plymouth. You all deserve out thanks and well wishes.
Ernest Jacques, York
At last! Some positive reporting on a great community initiative. Goethe is quoted as saying: "If everyone swept their own front step, the whole world would be clean." The above report clearly shows that this principle works in practice. Congratulations to the Wolsley Road residents and to Silla Carron. Lets hope that other people will be inspired to transform their communities as well.
Toby R, Bristol
Inspirational and fantastic. Shows what citizens can achieve without the "interference" of those that think they know best but do not live it. Well done all.
Keith, Haynes, beds
A great story of course! But, this process is not new or unique, what's sad is that it's taken so long to come about and that local society tolerated teenage dominance so long. The process needs bottling into a resource pack for others. In a nutshell it's simple empowerment. Hat's off to the small number of "can doers" everywhere.
Col, Plymouth, UK
Am I the only one who thinks that the 'after' photo looks even worse?
Alan Wake, UK