Wednesday, 04 March 2015

Looking for trouble

Residents on a west London estate are taking direct action to stop anti-social behaviour. Martin Hilditch spent an evening with the resident patrol to find out why the Home Office is sitting up and paying attention.

It’s a peaceful night on Fulham’s Townmead estate.

Despite the miserable weather a few residents are relaxing on their balconies. England flags flutter gently in the breeze from one set of railings and signs placed at regular intervals remind visitors that the Townmead is a ‘dog-free zone’. A group of pigeons poking round some old mattresses and dumped bedding that is propped against the bin store provide the main sign of life on the west London estate.

There is, however, something brightening up the gloom. Three men in neon yellow, high visibility jackets are taking a slow stroll around Townmead’s courtyard. From a distance they look like they might be neighbourhood wardens or even a community police patrol. As they approach, it quickly becomes obvious that they are altogether different. Get within a few yards and the writing on their jackets tells you simply that they are on ‘patrol’.

Townmead, it transpires, has been the subject of a something of a mild-mannered revolution. While these revolutionaries - who all live on the 600-home estate - are most likely to come armed with an offer of tea and biscuits they are extremely serious about ridding the Townmead of anti-social behaviour. It might be an entirely local approach but it is attracting the attention of the Home Office, which has sent officials on a ‘fact finding’ mission to see how the scheme has worked and whether it could be replicated elsewhere.

While government officials may be impressed, the police and the housing association which manages the estate are not. They say the group are putting themselves at risk. Is this the future of neighbourhood policing or is it simply foolhardy?

The last resort

Property surveyor Ben Perl is one of six people who make up the resident patrol or task force as the six members of the group sometimes refer to themselves.

The shared-owner says residents decided to act after three years of problems on the estate, mainly involving groups of young people causing problems in the stairwells and fire escapes of the flats.

‘Kids were congregating in the stairwells,’ he states. ‘Not only were they smoking and hanging out and drinking, they were also having sex there. It became a place that they could use and abuse as they saw fit without repercussion.’

Some of the problems were caused because central doors designed to stop people who didn’t live on the estate from entering the blocks didn’t work properly for a number of years, he alleges. By the time the doors were repaired the building had been ‘established’ as a hang-out for young people, he added. Neighbourhood wardens employed by the council have helped, he states, but they are not on-call all the time. The response from the police and Shepherd’s Bush Housing Group, which owns and manages the estate, is often too slow and has little impact, he adds.

After much debate the residents decided they would police the estate themselves. ‘We thought “we have got to make them [people committing anti-social behaviour] aware that we know they are there and we are not happy about it”,’ Mr Perl states.

‘We take very much a non-confrontational approach. It is saying “guys, you’re drinking here or you’re smoking here. It is not allowed and the solution is that you are going to have to move”.’

Fellow patrol member Andrew Arnhem, a social worker, says he is frustrated residents felt forced to act at all. ‘I don’t think we should be doing this really,’ he states. ‘The service charge we pay is exhorbitant.’

The group rarely patrols around the estate. Instead they don their jackets and step outside if anyone reports problems to them via phone or text message.

Usually, they say the perpetrators stop what they are doing and disappear as soon as they see them approach.

‘When we have spoken to them they have almost [always] assumed we have some sort of authority, which I suppose we have in some ways,’ Mr Perl adds.

Mixed reaction

The action squad has its fans. All the residents that I spoke to on the estate were supportive of what it was doing. Mr Perl says that the estate is noticeably quieter since the group formed. Perhaps it is this claim that persuaded the Home Office to take a look.

Nonetheless the group has attracted strong criticism from both the police and Shepherd’s Bush Housing Group.Paul Doe, chief executive of SBHG, says that, far from being an example of the ‘big society’, he worries that the residents are placing themselves in danger they are ill-equipped to deal with. ASB should be handled by professionals such as the police or housing officers, he states.

‘Let’s just say there are some young people on the estate that don’t live there and some guy in a jacket approaches them and says “move on”. They might not get a considered response. People could confront them back.’

When told that the Home Office has contacted the group about the scheme Mr Doe adds: ‘I think we have got to be careful about this and where it is going.’

He adds: ‘It sounds a bit like a natural extension of Neighbourhood Watch, which is about keeping an eye on a place. [But] now you are stepping into a very different area.’

He also points out that the association is running activity and training schemes to help young people on the estate learn skills and gain employment - which he argues is more in keeping with the government’s vision for the big society.

Mr Perl admits that the group has also attracted criticism from local police, who are worried about safety and that the high-visibility jackets falsely give the impression that the group is connected to them. The police were not available for comment at the time of going to press.

One resident adds she appreciates what they are doing but ‘I don’t think it is their job. This is a council issue’.

The group remains undeterred. Mr Perl says the jackets state clearly what they are doing and do not give the impression they are connected to the police.

From the even more peaceful confines of his flat Mr Perl adds: ‘Literally this was our last resort.

‘Our flats are everything we have worked for and everything we have strived for and to say we have to accept a lower standard of living than we anticipated is defeatism on so many levels for us.’

Readers' comments (14)

  • While in principle I am against this type of iniative, I find very hard to be against it. If police and council and housing associations are failing to give this estate and similar ones peace and quiet, why are they surprised that residents will eventually take matter in their own hands one way or another?
    Police, council and HAs are the ones to be blamed here and be criticised. These patrol is made up by brave residents who really care for their environment.

    and even though I do not like tories How hypocritical are those to blame the governement now for trying to take new iniatives in an area where the previous governement failed?

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  • It's in allocations, stupid. That's the cause. They're dealing with the symptoms.

    Needs-based letting incentivises the reckless.

    Answer: merit based letting; amendment of the tenancy agreement; respossession with extreme prejudice; and don't even think of having a status gerbil, wash behind your ears and clean your teeth, sunshine.

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  • Chris Webb

    Michael - can you explain how America has worse crime and disorder that we do, yet does not operate the needs-based allocations you claim is the cause?

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  • Michael Read, if you use the merit criteria of allocation, what chance have the most needy people to get housed?
    Surely if the yare needy it means they have no jobs, they are poor or ill one way or another and therefore lacking any of your merit scale points. they are also unable to afford any housing.
    Would you leave al lthese millions of people (made up by old, frail, disabled, jobless, ill, etc) in the street then?

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  • Owen Hart

    Nobody has an issue with housing the old and frail kass. But the reality of the practise needs based allocation creates "need" and "deprivation" by only housing those most "deprived". A race to the bottom as Robin Wales said. It's a monster that needs to be slain. The vast majority of older tenants I know are outstanding but that is because they were housed on the old merit based system. Those merit allocated tenants live in fear of their neighbours moving or dying as the LA will move in scum from the priority list who will life life hell for them. It only take one, and the scum are now legion as they are bred by other scum who have also been housed under "needs" based allocation and so the vicious circle continues.

    And in terms of action squads, I think leaseholders should be armed. Just like CO19....(joke, in case the po-faced lefties didn't get it...)

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  • ILAG it is not clear to me on what you base your merit scale. Could you describe here in details.
    I repeat my question where would you put all those - young, old, children, families, etc. which for WHATEVER reason would not get any housing if your merit criteria is introduced because all they have got is 'needs.' Surely they would not be able to house themselves. So where would you put them?

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  • Owen Hart

    This is nothing to do with "young, old, children, families, etc". This is to with whether the individual or family merits the allocation of a valuable and scare secure tenancy. Those who manufactured their "need" in order to game the system (ie pregnant teens of which we have the highest rate in Europe) would find themselves getting short thrift. They stay where they are in order to send the message that this is not acceptable and there is no reward for this. Just watch that headline rate plummet when a free flat for life, subsidised by the state, and a career on benefits, are removed from the list of options. Need is relative and is created in many cases by social policy. I would have thought this is self evident.

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  • Sorry ILAG to pester you, but still I need some practical clarification where you exactly stand. Given ALL you say is adopted and made governement policy, please tell me clearly what would happen to today's needies.

    You say of all today's needies "they stay where they are"...

    So are you saying that the pregnant jobless single woman would have to stay with her family for ever? And all the young people who come into adulthood who cannot get a job and pay for their own housign stay with their families? And what would you do with large families of 6 members and above all stay in a 1 or 2 bedroom flat? and people coming out of prison be homeless? And those who have lost jobs and unable to pay mortgages or private rents should be homeless, and the already homless remain homeless?... I could add many more to the list...

    I mean, could you explain how all this would work in practice without unsettling the little peace and order we have at the moment?
    and in what way you abolishing needs allocation would make england work better?

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  • Owen Hart

    "So are you saying that the pregnant jobless single woman would have to stay with her family for ever? "

    Yes. Clear enough for you?

    "And all the young people who come into adulthood who cannot get a job and pay for their own housign stay with their families"

    Yes. Just like in Italy and most other countries in Europe.

    "And what would you do with large families of 6 members and above all stay in a 1 or 2 bedroom flat?"

    Shouldn't have bred that many kids without having the space to occupy then should they? Again, self created "need", self created "deprivation". Slashing child benefit to one child only for single parents and two for married couples should also prevent overbreeding and damage to the planet caused by overpopulation by humans. See posts passim on the Optimum Population Trust...

    "people coming out of prison be homeless?"

    Hostels will do that job eg Centrepoint.

    "And those who have lost jobs and unable to pay mortgages or private rents should be homeless"

    No, they would be eligible as they had a job to loose in the first place so worthy of a merit based allocation.

    "the already homless remain homeless?"

    What street sleepers? Only a handful of them are British. Most of them are Accession 8 vagrants which can be removed with a bit of political will.

    "n what way you abolishing needs allocation would make england work better?"

    See answer to the above. Personal responsibility would return to the equation. No "needs" based allocation policy; less "needs" created in order to game the policy. Simples!

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  • Well, ILAG, it seems you solved it, covering all aspects. Thanks for your comprehensive reply!
    I might disagree with you but you have clearly shown there is logic in madness.

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