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London Bulletin: Broadwater Farm revisited


Twenty years ago the Broadwater Farm estate was the scene of riot and murder.  Today it is being hailed as a model of community relations.  Cllr Nilgun Canver tells the tale of a long and difficult journey.

“Riot is the voice of the unheard”, said Martin Luther King in the 1960s. He was talking about
Police in riot gear with shields
America, but he may well have been talking about the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham in the mid- 1980s. Twenty years ago the estate became a war zone, resulting in many injuries and the most horrible murder of a popular community PC Keith Blakelock.

Today, the wounds of that terrible night, 6 October 1985, continue to heal, and Broadwater Farm now stands as a model of partnership working between the police, council and the community. It has meant putting aside painful memories – with gritted teeth sometimes – to put things right for the thousand households who live there.

I have recently had the opportunity to discuss progress on the estate with colleagues, police and the community. Neighbourhood manager, Paul Dennehy, provided me with an illustration of bold partnering. He said: “Winston Silcott, whose conviction for the murder of PC Blakelock was quashed in 1991, has mentored young people on the estate. Images of him playing table tennis with Haringey borough police commander, Stephen Bloomfield – who incidentally was also on duty on the Farm 20 years ago – are testament to the integrity of the conciliation taking place. Twenty years ago this co-operation was beyond our wildest dreams.”

After all, the riots took place due to anger about the death of Cynthia Jarrett, while her home was raided by police looking for information about a car tax disc. When police blocked a subsequent protest to the police station the trouble began.

Afterwards, it was the landlord Haringey council that was charged with supporting residents and addressing the community safety aspects of their lives. This has been no easy task.

Clearly, the anger of young people that night was not driven simply by one incident. Unemployment, deprivation and racism were rife and many estate residents suffered.

Complaints about crime and antisocial behaviour on the Farm had blighted its reputation long before the riots. Even back in 1976, 53 per cent of housing applicants refused to live on the estate and many existing tenants wanted to move.

Partly it was the modern design. The 1967 Le Corbusier styled system-built estate, with no dwellings at ground floor level due to the high water table, had garnered a reputation as a concrete jungle. With its “walkways in the sky” linking the various blocks, the estate epitomised the model of poor housing identified by Alice Coleman in her influential 1985 book, Utopia on Trial.

Ms Coleman’s research mapped “lapses in civilised behaviour” against design features of estates – such as floors per block, entrances, dwellings per block, blocks raised above garages and child density. She argued – and significantly, won the ear of the then Conservative government – that much municipal housing design was seriously flawed, with walkways providing ideal entrances and exits for swiftfooted villains. She believed the landlocked residents in such high density housing would be both the victims and perpetrators of crime and anti-social behaviour.

So powerful was the connection between Ms Coleman’s problem estates and Broadwater Farm that when, in the mid 1980s, highly regarded architect Le Corbusier held a landmark exhibition, the absence of sponsorship was put down to the “Broadwater Farm factor.”

After making numerous bids, in 1993 the Farm was allocated £33 million of urban regeneration funding for an eight year estate action programme. The walkways were removed and the estate got a major facelift.

Crucially, a council restructure of its housing service – a trailblazer for the later Labour government’s National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal – paved the way for the local management of the estate.

My colleague, Cllr Isidoros Diakides, Haringey council’s executive member for housing, recalls the transformation: “We talked to residents to find out what they wanted, which in those days was quite a revolutionary concept. Our managers got some independence from the bureaucracy of the council, speeding up services to tenants. Now, the estate’s housing service has evolved into an internationally acclaimed model of tenant participation.”

And there are still some tenants, like Vic Parchment, who lived on the Farm during the troubles. Mr Parchment welcomes the changes. “All the blocks used to be linked by walkways. The estate used to be a haven for criminals on the run from police. And the lighting was very poor.

“Taking away the walkways was the best thing that happened. People are much more relaxed, now,” he says.

Indeed, a giant mural of a waterfall identifies the estate to passers-by and new concierge entrance systems, a community centre, health centre, a children’s centre and an enterprise centre have all contributed to the popularity of the estate. Now there is a waiting list of people wanting move onto the Farm.

Besides the physical changes, the Farm has benefited from continuity of management and from a commitment to community involvement and partnership with the police.

The most recent police/council partnership programme on the estate, Off the Street – Less Heat, involved midnight basketball and football sessions and other activities for young people from 8pm until midnight. Our aim was to cut down the low level anti-social behaviour witnessed during summer holidays, and to cut local street crime. In both respects the scheme, which attracted over 100 youngsters a night, was a great success with little reported crime or anti-social behaviour reported during opening hours.

We had some great partners to work with including PC Tim Allpress, a former premiership footballer with Luton Town, PC John Lambert, who was on duty during the riots, Winston Silcott (who has been employed by Haringey Peace Alliance), community workers and Haringey’s youth service. We secured funding for the project from different sources including our crime reduction action group and all agree it was money well spent.

PC Allpress explains: “It helps everyone communicate better. Young people don’t talk to us [police] for fear of reprisals. This project helps break down barriers, it helps us all.”

Group of young boys playing football
Another remarkable success and symbol of community resilience is the Broadwater United Football club. Manager Clasford Sterling also a veteran of the riots has, along with coach Terry Rowe, produced a talented group of footballers so focused and determined that premiership academies are falling over themselves to sign them up.

The academies of Arsenal, Fulham, West Ham and Tottenham have already bagged 16 players and Chelsea is watching with interest.

However, Mr Sterling feels that good things about the Farm are often ignored by the media.

“There are so many positive things going on here but people only want to know about the problems of Broadwater Farm. Our teams are winning and the academies can’t get enough of our players,” he says.

And it’s not all about sport; finger nail decoration, music, rap recording and several IT training programmes are included in the youth activities.

Twenty years on we’ve come a long way. But, instead of looking at the Broadwater Farm riots as a breakdown in community relations, we should now regard them as the breakthrough that set the national stage for true partnerships to flourish, healing fractured communities and making sure they not only have a voice but are listened to as well.

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