The Socialist 30 August 2007 |
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Massive deprivation in Norris Green, Liverpool
By Tony Aitman
The press and TV have been full of glaring headlines about crime in Liverpool following the death of 11 year old Rhys Jones. With glee, they have jumped on the continuing warfare between rival gangs in Norris Green and Croxteth. But behind those headlines lies a story of council neglect, long term unemployment, poor housing, and the continual criminalisation of young people with no future, and not much of a present.
Norris Green is an area of massive deprivation. There are 32,428 "Super Output Areas" in the UK, the basis of comparing levels of poverty, where 1 represents the most deprived, and 354 the least; nowhere does Norris Green score more than 2.
The area of Norris Green where I work, a row of shops in Scargreen Avenue called the Strand, is typical of this. This was the headquarters of Liam "Smigger" Smith, whose murder a year ago was the catalyst for the current round of violence. Every day, he and his mates would gather there, outside the local off-licence, smoking dope; the off-licence has a sign in the window: "No smoking spliffs in the shop".
But where else is there for them to go? There are no jobs for them to go to – 41% of Norris Green's population is without work, compared to a Liverpool average of 34%. It would be hard for most of them to get work if there was any, as 45% of Norris Green youth have no educational qualification. The jobs that are available pay appalling wages – the average income in Norris Green is £17,000 compared to a Liverpool average of £22,500, and a national median wage of £23, 244.
Housing is an on-going scandal. An indication of the quality of housing is the council tax band – 0.3% of Norris Green houses are in the C band or above, compared to 21% in Liverpool as a whole. Like many areas with historically low house prices, it is the norm in Liverpool for people to be owner-occupiers – over 70% of people own their own homes. Yet, in Norris Green, this figure is 42%, with 58% living in "social landlord" property or council estates. For years, these estates have suffered appalling council neglect.
Then there was the scandal of the Boot Estate, just down the road from Scargreen Avenue. Occupiers were told their homes were to be rebuilt and the area regenerated. They were moved out into temporary accommodation and their homes were demolished. It was then decided not to rebuild at all – leaving hundreds without the homes they had lived in for years and in worse housing than ever.
At the same time, the council is spending millions on the Capital of Culture – a jamboree that will completely bypass the ordinary working class of Liverpool – and criminalising youth such as those in Norris Green in the process. The centre of Liverpool around the Bluecoat building used to be a centre of small cafes, alternative clothing and jewellery stores, second hand bookshops and record shops, frequented by young people from throughout the city.
Now, bought up by the Duke of Westminster, all this has been closed down to be rebuilt as up-market shops and restaurants, with the youth kept out by a private army of security guards. With nowhere to go, they are herded by the police from one part of the city centre to another. Small wonder they feel alienated from the city authorities and "law and order".
To add insult to injury, the council is now begging for further loans to get itself out of the mess it is in, loans which will, according to their own figures, add £52 to the bill to be paid by each Liverpool resident. Oddly, the Liverpool Echo, which screamed for government intervention when the 1980s Militant-led Labour council sought loans to build houses and nurseries rather than a bean-feast for the rich, has remained strangely silent.
And what of crime in Norris Green? Unlike the image given in the press, it is lower than the rest of Liverpool – 159 crimes per 1000 population, compared to 175 in Liverpool as a whole. That many young people have been driven into a life of drugs and gangs is appalling – the deaths of Liam Smith and Rhys Jones at such young ages have been a tragic waste of young lives. Yes, the gangs do intimidate and frighten many people in the area, and Rhys' death is a terrible by-product of this – but the situation has been made worse by the very actions of the police and the media themselves.
When Smigger Smith died last year, flowers and graffiti lined the Strand. Chalked on every available surface were salutations to the Noggsy Soldier and every pole in the street bore a garland. An arrangement was made with the police and the local community that these could stay until after the funeral. The day before the funeral, the police came round warning everyone to keep closed the following day – and this appeared in the local press as that the gangs had threatened people. However, we had received not a single threat from any of the youths involved, and, true to their word, they removed all the tributes as agreed.
How can the problems of drugs and crime be solved in an area like Norris Green? The government has one answer – the Criminal Justice Centre, a fast-track court dealing with offenders in the area, pioneered in the area of Liverpool covering Norris Green. I was part of a group that met with David Fletcher, appointed as the Judge of the CJC just before it opened. He outlined the social poverty and deprivation that lay behind crime in Norris Green. "And so" he said, "the government has decided to grant unlimited funds to" … wait for it … "the Criminal Justice Centre". Not to housing, jobs, education, social centres or sports centres, but to one of the plushest courts in the country with oak panelling and marble flooring, and a judge who proudly boasted that he could tell who was guilty before he even heard their defence.
We cannot in any way defend the gangs, the drugs and the warfare that has resulted in so many lives being wasted. We can, however, unlike the media who weep crocodile tears while their circulation goes up, point to a solution. A massive rebuilding programme, decent education in properly equipped schools, proper jobs on a living wage, as part of a socialist programme to rebuild the economy. In the short term, that means a new, mass, campaigning workers' party that could give some hope and direction to the lost youth of Norris Green.