If you live in New Addington, you should probably know that journalist Robert Chesshyre feels sorry for you. “Desperately sorry,” in fact. But is that fair?
Since its publication on August 14, his article for The Week – headlined ‘New Addington: the benighted estate Tia Sharp called home’ – has been provoking sharp debate from locals and near neighbours.
Chesshyre, a former US correspondent for The Observer, described the area as an “impoverished ghetto” and wrote of the “vigilante-minded local people” on whom he bestows his pity. “I feel desperately sorry for the community”, he said.
Quick to defend the community it knows and serves, the New Addington Advertiser hit back, interviewing local people such as John Plummer, of Brierley, who said: “Does this journalist realise how much this could affect the area? He could stop people getting jobs, he could make house prices go down. He should apologise.”
The article has ruffled feathers with Croydon’s politicians too: Simon Hall, Labour councillor for Fieldway, told EastLondonLines: “His view was outdated, inaccurate and very misunderstanding totally of the area. He has come along with a set of middle class set of values and prejudices and misunderstood what goes on in the area.”
So what is the truth about the suburb in the furthest corner of Croydon that seems only to shoot into the headlines in the worst possible circumstances?
New Addington was developed in the 1930s by a housing trust with a vision for a garden village of 4,400 homes. The area was only one quarter complete when World War II began, and the project did not restart in earnest until the 1960s. Geographically isolated for the better part of its existence, New Addington saw years of gang and youth violence long before the riots which visited it last year.
Walk through the wooded borders of New Addington and Fieldway and their low-rise housing resembles the conformist utopia of that classic ditty ‘Little Boxes’. But these wards are among the most deprived in the country, falling within the bottom 20% (or in some pockets 10%) of the Indices of Multiple Deprivation, which are used to measure the social indicators of poverty. Both wards, too, have higher than average numbers of ‘social dependents’ and those who are not ‘economically active’; health indicators too are poor, life expectancy low. Most worryingly, perhaps, is the exceptionally high rate of teenage pregnancy in both areas.
In short, all the statistics, measurements and reporting point to an area of extreme deprivation and disadvantage. But does that translate to a “ghetto” whose residents deserve of our pity?
Not so, says councillor Hall. “No area is perfect, and every area has its challenges and less good people, but it’s a very strong 22,0000 person community. It does have its own identity and an incredibly strong sense of community.”
A councillor for the area since 2005, Hall is the kind of local politician who brims with pride and passion for his job and his constituency. He is obviously committed to the area and, in turn, the area is supportive of him. His personal experience has been a far cry from the judgemental vigilante environment painted by Chesshyre.
For a start, Hall and his partner are one of the first openly gay couples to be granted the right to adopt in the Borough. He said: “People asked was I going to have problem because I was gay, but nobody has any problems. People accept you for who you are – not what you are.”
The community which came together to search for Tia Sharp and to lay tributes to her after her death has always been close, according to Hall. “A few years ago we had some community tensions caused by the BNP,” he said. “So people had the idea to bring people together with food, through sharing each other’s food. We had over 500 people the first time we did it. It was incredibly popular and grew year by year.”
Nor is a New Addington postcode quite the CV death sentence that Chesshyre alleges – or not anymore. Since the opening of the 28km Croydon tramlink in 2000, employment rates have risen by 10% – in no small part because a journey to the centre that would once have involved slogging on buses or cars through poor weather or peak traffic now routes through East Croydon station.
Funding cuts have hit hard in the area but the community has worked together to make up the gaps. Hall said: “A management committee within the area set up two new youth clubs in the area, because it’s one where people don’t have the financial resources they need support.”
Indeed, just a few minutes’ walk from the Lindens, where the body of Tia sharp was found in her grandmother’s loft, the Timebridge Youth Centre was saved by from funding cuts by CeX founder and secret millionaire Bobby Dudani.
Continuing this kind of provision is a key concern, says Hall. “It is getting tougher for people who need help in the community because some of the resources people are used to turning to are not there. Some, we have managed to fill the gaps within the community. Others, we’ll see the effects later down the line.”
With no direct Olympic legacy forthcoming for New Addington or Fieldway and all local authorities struggling to meet their obligations after 27% cuts to their central government funding, it’s money – from sources other than TV shows – that presents the real problem.
Hall puts it bluntly: “We need to get resources into the area.” Perhaps this struggle to build on pockets of good work is where the conflicting voices in this debate agree. Few could disagree with Chesshyre when he says: “We talk of the Olympic legacy…a fitting legacy for Tia Sharp would be a national resolution to tackle the ills that beset so many who live out of sight and out of mind in places like New Addington.”