Volume 9 Number 3
The Red Lights Go Green in Birmingham
01 June 1996
The people of a former red light area have run the pimps and drug dealers out of town. Now they have launched a plan to regenerate their district. Mary Lean investigates.
Two years ago, Balsall Heath in Birmingham was the hub of a £10 million a year prostitution business. 450 girls plied its pavements, attracting hundreds of kerbcrawlers. Pimps and drugdealers lurked around. Local residents were afraid to walk the streets and unable to sleep at night because of the noise.
Today the problem has been all but eradicated. Only five prostitutes are left, the pimps and drugdealers have disappeared and all types of crime have dropped. Using three mobile phones and a portacabin, local volunteers have solved a problem which the police, spending £500,000 a year, were unable to dent.
Balsall Heath, an area of high immigration, fell among the most deprived two per cent of neighbourhoods in Britain in 1981. Today 41 per cent of its adult male population is unemployed.
In the past, the community's mood has been fatalistic, says John Ward, Chairperson of the newly established Balsall Heath Forum. The community's victory over the pimps and kerbcrawlers has given it a sense of its own muscle. The Forum, a coalition of local organizations and activists, has now launched a four-year development plan, which aims to make Balsall Heath a place where people choose to work and live.
Ward, who recently retired as Vicar of St Ambrose's Church in neighbouring Edgbaston, says that by June 1994 life in the area had become 'pretty intolerable'. Prostitutes were commuting in from all over England. 'There was a vast amount of noise and litter and a dangerous, sinister atmosphere.' His own church grounds were a favourite haunt of prostitutes and their clients, who could hide their cars between two church halls. 'They left condoms, used tissues and even knickers lying around - morning, noon and night.'
The Muslim community found the situation particularly offensive - especially when the girls started soliciting outside one of the local mosques during Friday prayers. 'The police said they wouldn't allow vigilantes,' says Raja Amin, the railwaymen's union official who led the campaign. 'But there was no law against our standing outside our own houses. We stood where the girls stood, on our own doorsteps.'
At the height of the picket, Amin had 500 people on the streets every night, armed with notebooks to take down the numberplates of kerbcrawlers and posters which warned, 'Your wife will get to hear of this.'
'The Muslim community had the will-power, the determination and the cohesion to act,' says Ward. The Christian community was split over the need to be compassionate towards the prostitutes' problems, an approach which baffles and infuriates the Muslims. As a result, Ward was the only clergyman to give the campaign his backing.
Meanwhile, the police were watching the pickets with concern. 'We were afraid of a backlash from the pimps,' says community liaison officer Sergeant Steven Bruton. 'We thought any day one might wind down his car window and blast away at the pickets with a gun. We were afraid the prostitutes might get assaulted. And we were afraid there might be riots. When it first started, the picket attracted a lot of people from all over. We thought the hotheads might have a go.'
In spite of a few allegations of assault, threats from the pimps and accusations from a group of liberal feminists, these fears did not materialize. 'The people involved were decent, God-fearing people,' explains Bruton. A couple of months after the picket began, a senior policeman told Ward and his colleagues, 'I'd have needed 100 men to do what you have done.'
In the summer of 1995, a year after the picket began, 80 of its members were enrolled by the police in an official Home Office backed 'Streetwatch' programme. Each was vetted, trained and issued with an ID card; four have since applied to become 'neighbourhood constables' with extra responsibilities. Balsall Heath is Britain's only inner city community to have set up such a scheme. This March the police announced that in the six months between May and November last year, it had not only nearly eradicated prostitution but also reduced serious crime of all sorts by 20 per cent.
'We have been able to do what nobody else in the UK has done,' maintains Safter Butt, Director of the Islamic Resource Centre and one of the Balsall Heath Forum's two vice-chairs. 'Someone overheard one of the drugdealers saying, "We can't take the whole community on." Nobody can take the community on. These are our streets.'
The success of Streetwatch has given Balsall Heath's population a burst of confidence and a determination to address the other problems which beset them. This might risk being a flash in the pan, were it not for the painstaking community building work which has been taking place over the last 25 years, centred around the St Paul's Community Project.
At the end of the 18th century, Balsall Heath was a small community of only 12 families, on the footpath to Birmingham. Its growth kept pace with the industrial revolution. By 1871 it had over 13,000 inhabitants; by 1911, it was a flourishing suburb of nearly 40,000.
When Birmingham's manufacturing base collapsed after World War II, Balsall Heath crumbled with it. By 1970, it was a place where no one wanted to live. Uncleared bomb sites and poorly conceived 'urban renewal' projects had left the area tatty and rundown. Even in the 1970s, some homes had no electricity.
Balsall Heath is typical of the 'urban villages' that often encircle big city centres, says Stephen Thake, a research fellow in the School of Policy Studies of the University of North London. 'They get lost in the growth of the city and also in the unitary nature of city government.' When these places come under stress-from redevelopment plans, for instance, or the withdrawal of local businesses-a sense of neighbourhood often begins to reassert itself.
The dynamo behind St Paul's is Dick Atkinson, a former university lecturer. In 1971, he and his wife, Gill, went to a Christmas service at St Paul's Church, once the hub of community life in Balsall Heath. They found themselves two of a congregation of six. The church hall was locked up and unused. 'That was kind of how it began,' he says. 'I was teaching sociology at Birmingham University, but the sociology of Balsall Heath quickly became more interesting to me.'
From that beginning has sprung a daycare centre, an urban farm, a community education centre (running afterschool and holiday programmes for local kids, activity days for schools, clubs for young people and classes for adults), two community theatre groups, an annual carnival, a community newspaper, a book of local history and a secondary school for drop-outs whose examination results rival those of most Birmingham schools. The Project's staff have also supported the efforts of housing associations to rebuild and renovate the area. These initiatives have helped the people of Balsall Heath to regain a sense of local pride and identity.
One thing led to another. As they talked to local people, the Atkinsons discovered the need for a day nursery. Gill was a teacher, so she opened one in the disused church hall, with a grant of £50 from the local curate. Next they pinpointed the need for an adventure playground, where the elder brothers and sisters of the nursery children could play after school. When they found teenage children playing there during school hours, they realized the area had a truancy problem and that some of these drop-outs needed a school tailored to their needs. In 1973, St Paul's Community School opened in two empty terraced houses. Later it moved into an unused infants school.
The first thing that hits you when you enter the school's hall today is its colourfulness. There are art displays all over the walls and carnival monsters hanging from the ceiling. The second is the row of honours boards, going back to 1975. In a mainstream school these boards might list university entrances. Here at St Paul's they list GCSE passes-the lower of Britain's two secondary school examination levels, and a major achievement for young people who would otherwise have fallen through the holes of the educational system altogether.
The school aims to provide a secure, friendly but disciplined environment where pupils can succeed. The 40-50 children who attend had either stopped going to school or been asked to leave, says headteacher Anita Halliday. 'We design our curriculum to let the children achieve every day of the week, in various ways. We treat art and cookery as seriously as maths and English literature.' When pupils don't turn up for school, the teachers fetch them; when they arrive late, they stay late to make up missed work.
The formula has been remarkably successful. Only 31 per cent of Britain's children achieve five GCSE passes at grades A to C, and only 23 per cent of Birmingham's. Fifty per cent of St Paul's pupils hit this standard. In 1993's GCSE performance tables, St Paul's came 20th out of Birmingham's 76 secondary schools.
'Without a St Paul's the destiny of many pupils is to leave school without any public examination result at all, with a sense of failure and fatigue and an unformed intention to explain to their own children that school and education will hold no opportunity for them,' writes Atkinson, in Radical urban solutions: urban renaissance for city schools and communities (Cassell, 1994).
Most parents pay £2.50 a week towards the cost of their children's schooling and extracurricular activities. For the bulk of its finances, the school has relied on a grant from the city, which is due to be withdrawn in July as a result of budget cuts.
Anita Halliday is used to staggering from economic crisis to economic crisis, but this is a particularly severe one. She hopes to buy time by persuading the city to give her the per capita grant they would otherwise have to pay to any new school which took the children. She is worried, but philosophical. 'I've been here 23 years, and there's never been a time when any of it struck me as being particularly easy or uncomplicated,' she says.
Stephen Thake, who has made a study of 'community regeneration organizations' around Britain, believes that successful projects like St Paul's are 'about personal growth'. 'In a world that is driven by outputs, bricks and mortar, pounds and pence, everything becomes technical,' he says. 'What inspires and moves these projects is a real and fundamental belief in people. The people at the St Paul's Project have the view that people are wonderful and just need to be given the right space to flower.'
In March, the Balsall Heath Forum launched a four-year development plan for Balsall Heath. The plan is based round seven collective projects, each with its own 'champion', encompassing family life, the environment, safety (championed by Raja Amin), business, education, participation and sustainability. The aim is to involve all the local community, and to raise money from business to match a £6 million grant from the European Union.
Parvaz Ahmed of the Birmingham Asian Business Association is the plan's business 'champion'. His goal is to attract businesses to the area by providing the skills, communications and security that they seek. Each street will set up a traders' association, which will send its representative to a weekly meeting. 'We will sit together and say, this is what is being prepared, what do you think?' Each of the seven champions will be coming up with similar strategies.
The plan was launched by Neville Simms, the Chief Executive of Tarmac, who became involved through a tour of Balsall Heath mounted by Business in the Community, a group which encourages companies to sponsor community work. Tarmac started out by providing a portacabin for Streetwatch; and then went on to second a manager to help the community to draw up the plan. Other companies have chipped in with mobile phones, initial funding, quantity surveying and business analysis.
There is a longterm advantage for firms in sponsoring community development, says Peter Lambert, regional director of Business in the Community. 'A prosperous high street requires a prosperous back street. Companies make a commitment in the hope that successful regeneration will lead to a more prosperous environment to work in.' In addition community secondments can provide an excellent training ground in the skills of flexibility and responsiveness needed in a changing business world.
Part of the function of the development plan, says Atkinson, is to bridge the gulf between the city government and the community. 'The "system" is not geared to speaking the language of ordinary people,' he says, 'or supposing for a moment that they are part of the solution.' He believes the welfare state, in spite of all its good intentions, has created a dependency society, where people find themselves at the bottom of a pyramid of state provision.
'Industrial progress, the nature of towns and the welfare state have unintentionally undermined and weakened the social, moral and spiritual framework which people need to sustain the integrity and moral quality of their lives,' he maintains. 'There is a hole in the social ozone layer.'
Balsall Heath has gone some way towards showing what can be done to plug this hole. Through the St Paul's Community Project and Streetwatch, people in Balsall Heath have begun to discover their power to help themselves. The issue now is whether they will receive the sort of backing from government and the business community which enable them to continue. The future of St Paul's Community School will be an early test.