Community Resistance, RA Issue 75, Autumn 1997

Birmingham City Council is a bed-rock of Labour sloppiness and corruption. The council bears all the hallmarks of a secure Labour stronghold - urban neglect, expensive and senseless projects and above all, complacency; the belief that come rain or shine their tenure is as solid as rock, their decisions unquestionable and their faceless bureaucracy virtually unaccountable. The city council is in denial - repeatedly failing to recognise the immense problems endured on the estates from day to day.
One such area is Newtown, north of the city. A densely planned 60's housing development and as with most of these estates that haven't already been knocked down, decay has set in. The area is flanked by Lozells, scene of riots during the eighties - part of a wider area now renowned for Yardie gang wars, including several shootings. In Newtown itself a large number of flats and houses are left lying empty, many derelict, anti social crime has rocketed and by day and night youth gangs have an increasingly free reign on the streets.
The police though are not in denial, they've just got little or no regard for the area. Their failure to act, even with the most straightforward of cases implies a deliberate policy of containment. Like the council they have been willing accomplices to the creation of the ghetto of Newtown.
"They do not have our interests at heart but the interest of controlling the whole community. An incident in Alma Way in the summer proves the point. When a police officer was hit by an alleged mugger over 20 coppers raced to the scene within minutes, running around the area like caged animals. Compare that with the following week when a schoolboy on his way home spotted an elderly mugging victim looking dazed. His father called the police and it was days before they eventually came to interview the woman. Enough said." Newtown Independent Newsletter 3/97.
Many aren't privileged with a police visit. These are two relatively unspectacular examples from hundreds since brought forward, highlighting the true police role locally.
To say that the residents had no representation until recently would be an understatement. At the beginning of the year a residents' group, under the auspices of a couple of salaried council mediators, was set up. This hapless attempt by the council at stemming growing discontent amongst the residents was entirely futile, in fact it marked the end of what was left of residents' confidence in the city council. Concerned more with litter problems and disused garages, attracting no more than half a dozen residents and unwilling to confront or even acknowledge the real local issues, the project was doomed to fail.
At the beginning of March people in the area produced and distributed a newsletter entitled the 'Newtown Independent'. Delivered to approximately 1500 homes, the objective was to gather support for a bona fide residents' group, independent of the council and other outside interests. The newsletter asked awkward questions and all the controversial things the council didn't want to hear. The leading article slammed the council-run 'Six Ways Residents Association'.
The Independent covered other topics as diverse as housing, debt, Jobseekers Allowance, mugging and an appeal for sponsorship for a local under 16 football team, Newtown Rovers, after council funding was withdrawn.
Local resident activists were pleased with the response. The newsletter had stirred up a hornets' nest - so when the police and council took measures to find out who it was treading on their toes, the formation of a truly independent group ceased to be just an attractive option and rapidly became an absolute necessity. With the police and council already showing signs of nervousness, it was an ideal time for the community to get organised.
As the seeds of an independent residents group were being sown, the problem of mugging in and around the estate was growing more acute. Reports of attacks were flooding in from across Newtown. Mugging gangs, comprising largely black youth, were operating with impunity. It became apparent that there were particular hotspots where muggers were so self assured that they wouldn't even leave the scene after committing an attack. The very young, elderly and vulnerable were under constant threat, the gangs were virtually controlling the estate by a regime of fear, targeting anyone who stood in their way.
There were isolated acts of retribution - one notable case involved a family member of a mugging victim who systematically hunted every member of a particular gang with a baseball bat. One of the muggers was killed by a car some weeks later after committing another mugging. To protect the community and alleviate the problem needed organisation and numbers, isolated attacks weren't adequate, the support of the whole community was essential.
In an attempt to gauge logistical strength a public meeting was called for 21st March, at Holte School in the centre of Newtown. Some 2000 leaflets were distributed throughout the area.
The leaflets had barely had time to drop on the doormats before the police visited the home of one of the local organisers, whose wife and child had been mugged the previous weekend. The police let it be known in no uncertain terms that his phone was being tapped, not really surprising, but what was intriguing was that they were telling him about it. A shot across the bows perhaps? Obviously a shot from much higher up the police hierarchy than lowly PC Plod.
Increasingly it dawned on the NIRC that they had hit on a raw nerve. This realisation became glaringly obvious when, halfway through their brief the police threw their cards on the table. Identify the muggers, testify in court and in exchange the family would be rewarded with a much sought after council move to an area of their choice. They had obviously done some homework because the family in question had tried desperately for three years to get a move only to be knocked back time and again. Most of the mugging victims on the estate would tell you you'd be lucky even to get a visit from the police after an attack, let alone the offer of witness protection schemes and such handsome and enticing rewards.
The opportunity to turn supergrass was angrily rejected. Having tried frightening off the organisers and then attempting to buy them off. the police were sent packing empty handed.
The response to the leaflets was encouraging - the timing impeccable. Racist elements on the estate were stirring, talking of building barricades "to keep the niggers out". To counter this the NIRC took a strong anti-racist stand-point, in order to ostracise the racists, even before the campaign had started in earnest.
On Friday 21st March the first public meeting took place. 200 or so people turned up with people having to be turned away due to a lack of space in the hall. Many victims spoke emotionally from the floor. Of those present 106 had been mugged, some several times and this was without taking into account a multitude of burglaries and other crimes against the community. The mood was angry, as one by one speakers tore into the police and council. One woman summed up the meeting, "I felt I couldn't do anything on my own but looking at all these people here tonight I feel we can do something."
Clearly there was no turning back. If Newtown was to be anything near habitable the sense of community would have to be rediscovered and the problems confronted head on.
Effectively, Newtown Independent Residents Association, (NIRA) as it came to be called, would have contend with the young gangs for control of the area. A simple choice between working class rule and gangster rule, and the choice was not being overstated. Various suggestions were put forward by residents at the launch meeting - an escort service from a pool of volunteers, thus providing security to the elderly and vulnerable. Outing muggers and where youngsters were involved, confronting families with a view to isolating those who persistently refused to curb anti-social youths. Volunteer street patrols were called for, particularly geared towards mugging hotspots. NIRC's initial concerns about possible calls for saturation policing were quickly dispelled. The overwhelming feeling of residents was that the police had, without any pretence abandoned the area.
On the night of the 21st an official committee was formed, representing a good cross section of the community, white, black and Asian. All with different backgrounds and different stories to tell, but with two things in common - a determination that something was going to be done, and a realisation that the fate of Newtown as a community lay not with the police or absentee Labour councillors or MP s but with the community itself.
For the next fortnight the committee met and discussed the way forward for NIRA. A second public meeting was called for April 4th at Holte School and Leisure centre with a view to putting some of the many proposals into action.
In front of an audience of 150 NIRA supporters the committee announced its plans for a march through the estate on May bank holiday and a campaign to by-pass the council and brick up key alleyways on the estate known locally as rat-runs, used extensively by muggers. The committee appealed for information to be gathered on known offenders. the focus was becoming sharper as the campaign gained momentum. The campaign was on everybody's lips, not just in Newtown but other areas too - spirits were rising.
Towards the end of the meeting a known mugger had the audacity to enter the rear of the hall and was taken outside by a couple of residents and sent packing. Within minutes he had returned with a gang looking for one of the lads who had told him where to get off. Needless to say he was promptly despatched by stewards. Let off lightly considering the circumstances, elderly residents complained that he'd deserved harsher.
A week or so after the skirmish the police contacted the Holte Centre and told them there had to be a police presence immediately outside the building at any future NIRA meetings. Anticipating no further trouble and well aware that the police had always been present anyway, NIRA chose not to argue. However within hours the police demanded representation within NIRA meetings, effectively trying to muscle in on the campaign. The choice was accommodate the police onto the committee or face a ban, not only from the Holte, but all council premises.
Of course the police never expected NIRA to agree to such a demand, the move was blatantly designed to obstruct the progress of the anti mugging campaign, and in the short term it did. The message sent out to Newtown was that it was okay for muggers to use Holte's facilities, but the community in its opposition to them were banned. Like all the authorities countermoves to date, it backfired. When the next public meeting scheduled for April 1 8th had to be cancelled, word quickly spread as to who was responsible and why.
Furthermore, the police had been quick to scupper NIRA's chances of obtaining other venues in the area - the idea being to cut off the committee's lifeline to the community. The police had managed to pull off another PR.. disaster - yet again they were seen to be actively working against the NIRA campaign, whilst the muggers still operated with impunity - proving locally that politics preceded the countless vicious muggings on the police list of priorities. Publicly they paid lip service to the anti mugging initiative, moaning to the press about how they and the council were being locked out by NIRA.
On May 1st residents of one street gathered in front of the press and TV cameras as NIRA bricked up its first rat-run. For several years people had been demanding the council do something about the maze of alleys that wind throughout the estate, the council had done nothing. However within minutes of the wall going up council officials were on the scene; where there's a camera, there's a councillor! The council official whined for the press about how they'd been cold shouldered by the residents association and how the community was "not necessarily going about things the right way".
The empty waffle of the council lackey spoke volumes. Still nursing their wounds a few hours later another council official contacted committee members, threatening "the walls not safe, either you knock it down or we'll knock it down for you". But for all their bluff and bluster it was a case of once bitten, twice shy. That night the unusually quick "Quick Response Team" battened the wall and kindly boarded it to allow the compo to dry.
The committee chairman also received a visit that night, from a police chief inspector wielding more threats - if the march went ahead he would be arrested under the Public Order Act, unless an application for police permission was signed and granted. The offer was firmly refused owing to the fact that such an action requires 6 days notice and with only 3 days until the march, co-operation would have been futile. Quite apart from the principle that the people of Newtown had every right to congregate freely in their own community. Growing used to being snubbed by now the police left empty handed.
On Monday May 5th, residents took part in the anti-mugging march dubbed "Reclaim Our Streets". The march was well supported, with a lot of new, younger faces and plenty of support from residents en route. The media coverage was again favourable with all the local press TV and radio turning out to cover the event. In contrast to the anticipated confrontation the police assigned to tag along with the march had clearly been well briefed on "client relations", going out of their way to sympathise and commiserate with the marchers - clearly one of their better PR moves to date. It was only after the culminating rally, when most NIRA supporters had gone home that the committee chairman was arrested and cautioned under the P.O.A. for organising an illegal demonstration. Just when it was going so well, yet another shot in the foot for community/police relations.
During a series of post-march radio and TV interviews it transpired that NIRA was supposedly planning to hold talks with the council the following week to air their grievances, which was news to NIRA!
The residents spokesperson responded appropriately, "There's only one group of people who represent the community of Newtown, and that's the Newtown Independent Residents Association".
The council, like the police no longer figured in the equation. If the police and council hadn't already done enough to fan the flames of Newtown Independence, the committee were informed later that day that a woman police sergeant, well known locally, had been deployed outside the gates to Yellow Park, where the march had met, helpfully informing people that the march had been cancelled.
The next couple of weeks saw a noticeable shift in people's attitude on the estate. Pensioners were walking out in the open again, handbags and all. Committee members were greeted wherever they went. All over Newtown, people were talking about the campaign. Word got back that the mugging gangs had begun to operate elsewhere, certainly not a victory but a step in the right direction.
The police were clearly unnerved by the "outing" of the mugging issue. Between them, over recent years, the council and police effectively conspired to allow young hoods the run of the area, thereby keeping them out of the more respectable surrounding areas. The police appeared to be containing and simultaneously ignoring the damage inflicted on the community of Newtown for the greater good, in this case a quiet life and the subjugation of a potentially troublesome community, with people too scared to leave their homes, let alone getting organised and demanding answers to exacting questions. Arguably, the final upshot is that the gangs themselves have been used as a form of social control, and like rats to a trap the hoods and muggers fell for it.
. It's ironic that 3 days before the "Reclaim our Streets" march a source revealed to committee members that the police were to launch a high profile "shop-a-robber" hotline the following week, and to compliment this an extra 30 police officers were to be assigned to street patrols and undercover operations on the estate, with a further 30 being promised for the Autumn. Note, the weekend before the public launch of "shop-a-robber" there were no reported street robberies throughout Newtown: compared to an average of 14 cases per weekend, plus those that are not reported. Obviously the NIRA initiative was beginning to take effect, yet the police ignored their own statistics, publicly at least, and chose to proceed with the launch.
Unlike the Council the police were now trying to box clever. Their strategy was and remains twofold. Firstly, by way of zero tolerance policing, the community as a whole would effectively be punished. "People would be stopped but the innocent have nothing to fear. " In an area where a householder might have a choice between 6 months car tax or a fortnights food, innocence in the eyes of the law is a rare virtue. For its audacity and outspoken attacks on the authorities, for its steadfast refusal to acknowledge a police or council role in community matters, for its uncompromising initiatives Newtown would be singled out for an unofficial zero tolerance pilot scheme in the West Midlands. This came one week after the chief constable had publicly denounced the very idea of the zero tolerance strategy being deployed on the streets of the West Midlands. Yet the very same was being announced for Newtown in all but name, in a way making the NIRA a victim of its own success. NIRA anticipated police saturation very early on:
"Some sections of the community have called for a higher police presence. A case of treating the symptoms rather than the disease. However, no-one could argue that the attitude of the police to Newtown is at best indifferent, and more often than not hostile. A heavier police presence, given their current attitude, will only further the notion that Newtown is an undesirable ghetto, where the whole community becomes the problem, as happened in many poor areas in the eighties. Building a wall of riot police around us will do nothing to help our community."
On the 24th May the council knocked down the first concrete wall, that had caused so much controversy at the beginning of the month. Each committee member was notified that the wall would be knocked down as it had been deemed unsafe. The wall lies opposite a row of derelict council houses, thousands of shards of broken glass and crumbling masonry that make a mockery of the councils safety concerns. The media looked on again as brick by brick the wall came down, committee members vowed to the Council and press that the wall would be up again the next Friday unless the council didn't do something themselves. That very afternoon residents on the street were canvassed by council representatives asking if they would prefer the alley bricked up, gates with residents having keys, or wooden fences. Residents told them to brick it up. The committee chairman has since received several visits from more senior council officials begging for talks with NIRA. Needless to say, all requests have been rejected. The single ingredient in the NIRA launch period that has insured its political integrity so far has been its refusal to share a platform with the council or police. Despite numerous attempts at compromise and coercion and even trying to outlaw the organisation, NIRA has stood firm, this has done a lot to command credibility in the eyes of the community.
The problems have not gone away, what has changed though is that the community as a whole are confident enough to stand up and return fire. Newtown is united and fighting back.

On Friday July 4 Labour leader Jackie Russell announced that after months of secret negotiations the Welwyn and Hatfield District Council had agreed a final settlement with Slough Estates in regard to the £48 million awarded against the council in a high court decision 18 months previously.
Having already handed over 10 million of residents money plus a further £3 million in interest accrued, the final deal was for a further £20 million. A total of roughly £33 million. Council Leader Jackie Russell declared that this amount was "manageable" even though the council's annual budget is £9 million.
One suspects that what she meant was that, the situation was now politically manageable. And that in her estimation Labour, the principle culprits in the scandal might yet escape the wrath of local residents. Just six days later that assessment appears a tad optimistic after a by-election result on July 10 in which the Labour vote collapsed.
The Slough scandal broke late last year with the initial announcement of the High Court judgement and fine of £48 million. Senior officers on the council and group of six Labour councillors were named in the judgement and Justice May offered a damming verdict of their and the council's behaviour:
"There was a policy to tell lies .. from July 1987 onwards, the council was nursing a lie and has set itself a time bomb."
The 'policy of lies' was designed to induce one set of property developers (Slough Estates) to build a shopping mall by lying a about the intentions of another set of developers [The Carroll Group] already building another one up the road. The secret deal would have been worth millions to the Carroll group. So far however there has not been a single prosecution. Indeed the council have shelved any talk of an inquiry into the motives behind the campaign of lies and deception and are attempting to write of Sloughgate as a type of 'natural disaster'. There is cross party support for this approach and were it not for the Residents committee this unbelievable scam would have been implemented without protest. The fact that the deal was based on an illegal act, or that the council had no mandate from the residents to negotiate with Slough, or that the principle architect is being investigated on a separate corruption issues was regarded with benign shoulder shrugging indifference by all the major parties.
In normal circumstances the political pressure would be expected to come from the conventional parties Tory and Liberal but for different reasons, both have tactically supported the ruling Labour group. The Tories because they are also implicated, and the Liberals who simply appear to lack the bottle for the fight. So while a local pressure group The What Went Wrong Committee was a cause of initial embarrassment and concern it began to look as if Labour and its allies would brazen it out.
Then just three weeks before the May 1 district election residents in Welwyn Hatfield decided to stand a candidate against Labour in a single ward in South Hatfield. They decided to contest the ward of George Wenham, one of the councillors named in the High Court judgement. Having been constantly taunted by Labour councillors on the lines, "that if you think you have support stand against us", local resident Debi Piper took up the challenge. Privately, Labour councillors took side bets that she would not get more than 60 votes. After a three week campaign canvassing working class area with an entirely inexperienced team she took 50% of the Labour vote 1100 votes in total. At the count Council Leader Russell and newly elected MP Melanie Johnson were visibly perturbed by the implications.
Though Labour still won, the margin of victory was a 1000 down on a 70% turn out. That this was almost exactly the vote for the residents candidate did not go unnoticed in certain Labour circles. The conspiracy of silence had been breached.
Within weeks another by election was called this time in Welling and the residents were the first to throw their cap into the ring. They also announced that they would "stand residents representatives in next May's Council elections against those who have pursued an unjust and secret deal with Slough Estates".
As intended this put the cat among the pigeons. Now not only were the guilty ie those implicated directly in the affair, but also those being left to clear up, and indeed help 'cover up' the mess afterwards, now also in the frame. The possible ramification for Council Leader Russell herself within a majority of only a couple of hundred were all to clear. So while failing to take on steps in the public interest and standing four square behind her colleagues, all proven liars and almost certainly corrupt, the hint of threat to her own self interest seems to have sparked a hitherto dormant public conscience. Of more immediate concern was the difficulty she had in getting anybody to represent Labour in the ward. Her first choice politely declined the poisoned chalice while second choice decamped to the Anti Sleaze anti Slough campaign!
Within two days of the Residents strategy becoming public; (Saturday to Tuesday; to be precise) Ray Little former Council Leader and the 'dark prince' in the whole affair had been forced to resign from the Labour council. Immediately Russell named two other Labour councillors she felt should fall on their swords. However, with the backing of the newly elected Labour MP for whom Little was the de facto campaign manager they have so far declined. The party is now clearly split on how to proceed.
Meanwhile in the Panshanger ward of Welling, the residents candidate Peter Coen, standing on a No to Sleaze! No to Slough! ticket was getting a good reception, again particularly amongst natural Labour voters. From early canvassing returns the campaign was on course for a shock upset.
Then came the announcement of the settlement with Slough on the Friday before the election. As with the Little resignation the timing was designed, it would appear, to give the impression of Labour, even if little belatedly, taking control of the situation.
As expected it had a direct impact on the campaign, though not entirely the one Labour anticipated. The settlement was lined up as a torpedo against the Residents campaign; orientated as it was to preventing a settlement. Once the settlement was signed and sealed the No to Sleaze! No to Slough! Campaign became in effect redundant.
Despite the ambush the Residents candidate again took over 30% of the Labour vote with just 94 votes! The discrepancy is explained by the fact that the Labour vote itself collapsed!
Labour had crashed spectacularly from 600+ and a 200 majority over the Tories in 1996 to second place with 282. The Tories won with 406 a net gain of all of 6 votes from 1996. Labour tactics had sabotaged the residents electoral plan but were unable to save their own seat. From the figures it is clear that former Labour supporters had initially switched to the Residents campaign, something borne out by the canvassing returns, but saw little point in voting for the No to Sleaze! No to Slough! platform once agreement had been reached. However rather than switch back to Labour the working class simply abstained as the exceedingly low 25% turn down from 42% in 1996 bears out.
Ironically, even though the Residents Campaign polled less than 1,000 votes than in May, as a tactic, it has proved more productive. Allowing for the fact it was the timer rather than bomb itself that went there is still blood in the water. The device of democracy itself is being re - set and the Labour Party now feel that sooner or later it will blow up in their faces.
As a supporter of the campaign told the Big Issue: "Slough wasn't a departure from their normal practice - it was their normal practice. It was a private members club operating beyond the reach of all democratic process. The Slough case was just the deal that went wrong."
What is true for Welling and Hatfield is also true for Labour Party custom and practice up and down the country. Camden, Glasgow, Doncaster Hackney Birmingham, and so on share the common hallmark of sleaze and unchecked corruption and total contempt for the communities that elect them.
Labour, like that other great British institution Her Majesty's Police, is inherently corrupt, and like 'PC Plod' is irreformable, and until challenged from inside working class communities often appear invulnerable.
Because it is only the working class that suffer from the council and police corruption, it is only the working class communities themselves that show any interest in challenging them.
As things stand none of the major parties or institutions even pay lip service to working class interests anymore so increasingly the working class have begun to represent their own interests.
Proof of that is the fact that after a period of little more than three months a small working class residents committee in Welling and Hatfield, has become the boroughs 'official political opposition'.

Reproduced from RA Issue 75, Autumn 1997