The Wall in the Head: Why money alone can’t help our worst estates

Speech to Wandsworth council, May 15, 2013

This council created modern Latchmere, the ward I represent, and we got it wrong. We built streets in the sky where neighbours fear to stop and talk. Designed estates with few shops and no jobs – in some cases literally with walls around them.

We had a tenancy policy that – coupled with a misguided Right To Buy scheme – has concentrated the borough’s most troubled families in the same places.

As I told this chamber in my maiden speech, I joined the council to change Latchmere, not keep it the same.

Since I made that speech in 2010, on the Winstanley and York Road Estates, six young men have been shot and one stabbed to death.

The Kinghan Report into the Clapham Junction riots stated that the Winstanley Estate is in the 1 per cent of worst places to grow up as a child – in the entire country.

So it is very encouraging that the council’s approach aims – alongside a bold new look at the estates’ layouts – to lift people’s spirits, fire their ambition. Give back some of the honour and goodness that has drained from their lives.

I also strongly welcome the changes to council housing allocations which will give priority to longstanding residents and allow them to stay in our community.

The whole package, from £100m investment in our estates to credit unions and anti-gang work, should be a hand up, not a hand-out – and there is an exciting opportunity to make these changes with residents not to them.

I’d like to talk briefly about the wall between communities in Wandsworth and what we can do to come together.

The average Wandsworth property costs £500,000 and household income for a new home purchase last year topped £100,000.

It’s good news that more than half of Wandsworth residents now have a university degree or higher qualification. Truly we are the Brighter Borough. But all of this increases the gap between families whose lives have stood still as the most able young people in Britain who choose to settle in our neighbourhoods.

Income data shows we continue to be divided. Over the past 4 years there has been an increase in families earning more than £70,000 in the borough and there have been an increase in families earning less than £15,000. Every income band in between has shrunk – there has been a ‘hollowing out’.

We must stop this slide into two tribes, with different jobs, fashions, schools and shops for each.

More than any physical separation barrier, the worst estates create what writer Lyndsey Hanley called the ‘Wall in the head’. She describes an almost insurmountable mental barrier to social mobility – “Low expectations… not knowing what is out there, or believing that what is out there is entirely irrelevant to your life, or so complicated that it would go right over your head if you made an attempt to understand it”

The need to learn a completely new language and set of ideas to move beyond your immediate environment.

After the Clapham Junction riots I arranged to meet a group of teenagers who had been involved in and observed the disorder. They blamed family life, government, boredom – but shot through it all was a fatalism that the whole system is stacked against them: so why even try?

“I can’t make a change”

“The government, no matter what you say they don’t listen. I’ve been on this planet 18 years and they haven’t listened to a word I’ve said. Not one.”

There’s a solid wall between us and them.

So while we redesign our estates to remove walls and make them more open to the world and to new businesses, it is right we also work on the mental barriers that hold people back. This will be difficult and we will need second chances. When people miss an opportunity we shouldn’t exclude them, we should reach out further.

I hope both parties can agree the council will continue down this path which uses its power to rebuild and inspire its most deprived areas – and to break down the walls between residents.

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