Sensationalist coverage of “riot” in area shows how media failed to grasp the real challenges faced by the community.
Photos: Hannah Vickers
Southmead is an area that only seems to make the headlines when there’s trouble. Back in the 80s and 90s, Southmead was known as a tough, no-go estate. Despite being much improved it’s still often painted that way, with incidents exaggerated by the press.
So when a summer of escalating antisocial behaviour and vandalism culminated in an arson incident this year, the local press reported gleefully on the “riots in Southmead”.
“Trying to get positive stories of young people in Southmead in the press is really difficult,” says James Creed, a local youth worker. “They’re just not interested. It doesn’t sell papers, it doesn’t create outrage. They like sensationalism and photos of burnt out cars.”
Some said that the heavy police response may have exacerbated the problem. Having decided to send a message, the police went in with riot vans and officers on horseback to deliver nine dispersal notices. It was after they left that the kids reconvened and set a stolen moped on fire, which in turn got an adjacent van and car to catch fire.
Darren Jones, newly elected MP for Bristol North West, said that he thought the riot vans and horses were “a bit over the top”. But the police insisted it was the right thing to do with PC Rob Cheeseman, neighbourhood manager, saying they “were being proactive rather than reactive”.
Through community-led initiatives and funding, the area had been improving over the past two decades, but with cuts to services and the recent closure of the local police station, many are worried that things could go back to how they once were.
“A hangover from the past”
Back in the 80s and 90s, Southmead made an easy target for sensationalist reporting. At the time, drug dealing was prevalent and blatant and crime rates were high. “It was a really dark time in Southmead,” says Paddy Dorney, who runs Southmead’s adventure playground ‘The Ranch’. “There were a lot of people selling heroin to kids as young as 12 and 13 and targeting them, getting them involved in crime.”
Reflecting on the media’s representation of the situation last summer, local Councillor Brenda Massey says it is “a hangover from the past, which I think is quite unfair on people living there now”. “It’s not like it used to be, we’ve just been the victim of bad publicity. The community is pulling together,” she says.
Indeed, the late 90s saw the community take a stance on the issues affecting them. Residents set up the Voice of Southmead, a grassroots organisation which grew to become a pressure group that campaigned for better facilities and funding for the area.
“It was a two way thing, the police had to start thinking ‘we have to work with these kids’. We even did training, telling the police how these kids are disadvantaged”
Keen to tackle widespread problems head on, one meeting attracted 500 people sick of drug dealers running the area. “Police were concerned that we were going to turn into vigilantes,” says Dorney, who was involved in the community group. He says that the relationship between kids and police in early 1997 was “terrible”.
Instead, the group worked with the police, informing on dealers and running surgeries to teach them how to engage with the young people. “It was a two way thing, the police had to start thinking ‘we have to work with these kids’. We even did training, telling the police how these kids are disadvantaged,” Dorney recalls.
“We agreed that we would be happy to inform on sex offenders and child molesters so we should be putting [drug dealers] in the same category,” says Dorney. They leafleted known dealers’ homes – “it was so blatant, it wasn’t hard to find them,” he says.
The Voice of Southmead got a lot of media coverage, which in turn made the authorities pay attention. The oft ignored and much maligned community of Southmead suddenly had power.
“The improvement to the community over the first three or four years was massive,” says Dorney.
Crime plummeted and Southmead was transformed by the regular injections of funding that enabled the creation of support services.
Losing vital services to cuts
However, according to Dorney many of these gains have disappeared over the years as funding has dwindled. With Bristol City Council announcing that they’ll have to make more than £100 million of savings over the next five years, few services will be spared by more upcoming cuts.
Services have already been whittled away; including the council services office, which quietly closed earlier this year. ‘Long Live Southmead’, a group of public health workers who were tackling Southmead’s lower life expectancy than its neighbours, has also gone. They set up a community plan to run healthy eating, anti-smoking and alcohol awareness campaigns, but there’s now just one of public health worker left, whom they share with Lawrence Weston.
Deana Perry, a resident involved in most of Southmead’s remaining initiatives, many of which are volunteer-run, says that they’ve lost services that had been originally ring-fenced from the cuts. “Then the floodgates were opened because when [Mayor] Marvin [Rees] took over, [the council] realised what serious trouble they were in and and the gloves were off then,” she says.
For Darren Jones MP, whose constituency is one of the most economically diverse in Bristol, the cuts “just completely undermines the role of public institutions, the public sector and the state in local communities”.
Kids’ lives getting ruined
Youth services have already suffered. Since the last allocation of funding in 2013, youth workers say that growing demand and no extra money has meant that the gap between provision and need has steadily grown over the past five years.
The recommissioning of services under the new model called Targeted Youth Services (TYS) means £1.2m of funding will be cut, and this will be sharply felt.
“The old users are back, there are kids getting involved in crime,” Dorney says. “You’ve got kids whose lives are getting ruined, who’ve got no future, whose standard of life is poor because of all these cuts. In this modern time I can’t believe it’s still happening.”
“It’s obvious that the earlier you start to work with and engage with kids, the less chance there is of serious antisocial behaviour in the future”
Southmead was going to see a 40-50% cut in youth services funding because of its proximity to some of Bristol’s wealthiest districts, but Councillor Helen Godwin, who is responsible for TYS as well as being a councillor for Southmead, says this was revised following consultation to make it more balanced.
She says that the South and Central will get a “bigger pot” of money because there are more deprived areas but that Southmead will continue to be a “hotspot” when commissioning services.
Meanwhile the new youth services model cuts out provisions for children under 12. Godwin says that the council’s statutory duty to youth services is for 13-19-year-olds and that children’s centres and early help services will cater to children who don’t fall in this age bracket.
But with the loss of early intervention and preventative measures, some warn the savings are going to be more expensive in the long-run.
“It’s obvious that the earlier you start to work with and engage with kids, the less chance there is of serious antisocial behaviour in the future,” says youth worker James Creed.
“We need investment,” insists Dorney. “I’m only saying what a lot of people are saying. It’s a false economy, it won’t pay for itself over the long term.
“In 10 or 15 years time these kids are going to be a demand on the health service and criminal service. And it’s not just about drugs, it’s about kids getting involved in positive activities and being fit and healthy and learning about a healthy lifestyle.”
The cuts mean that one-to-one targeted youth work is going to have to be reduced, even though it is particularly effective with children with complex needs. Creed says that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, that youth work needs to be able to work with children as individuals, identifying children most at risk and working out what will work best for each one.
“Having the resources and the ability to be able to look at individuals and what can be done for them is really important, but also really expensive and time consuming,” he says.
“Police are just seen as the enemy”
While the police presence this summer demonstrated its capacity to organise big operations, the role of the police in the community has been affected by a decline in funding.
Creed says neighbourhood policing “has historically always worked in places like Southmead”. But these days, “there’s just no relationship there any more, there’s no relationship between the police and local residents, or the police and young people, so there’s no trust, there’s no communication”.
“The only time they get to meet a policeman is when they’re in trouble and they’re probably going to get arrested, so that’s got to change,” says resident and volunteer Deana Perry. Creed points to the same problem: “All they see is the uniform, they’re just seen as the enemy.”
“One of the main things I’ve found successful in Southmead is foot patrol,” says Lee Paterson, neighbourhood beat manager, who’s been a police officer in Southmead for the last 20 years. According to him, it makes people feel safer and people “become bothered” again when they see the police on the street.
“I’ve been here for a while and they know me. It’s about trust. They have to keep people like me, they have to keep that face of the police within communities,” he says. “There’s so much that we do in communities that goes under the radar.”
However, since the police station shut last April, “Southmead has suffered a lot,” says Paterson. Now, the police are operating from an office in the community hub. This also means that the two beat officers and four PCSOs operating in Southmead have to go first to the city centre to clock in and get into uniform and then drive up to Southmead.
“My team’s visibility has not been anywhere near the level that it should be or has been in the past. Community policing needs to be sustainable. It needs to be focused and with long term foot patrol, keeping beat managers in beats for a long time so their faces are known. You need to be able to get into that community and be on first name basis with people.”
“We would ideally like to have more police on the streets, but the budget doesn’t allow that and so we have to be careful about where we use our resources,” says Inspector Rob Cheeseman, Neighbourhood Manager for North Bristol.
Since 2010 Avon and Somerset Constabulary has had to make £65m in savings and will need to cut another £17m by 2022. A recent report warned that the force has 655 fewer officers than in 2010 and has reached a tipping point. It states that the force “cannot sustain further funding cuts without extremely serious consequences”.
Despite a 10% increase in reported crime in Avon and Somerset in the last year, the increasing complexity of crime, and the rise in demands on the force, the home secretary, Amber Rudd recently told police and crime commissioners around the country that they should tell residents how they plan to make them safer rather than “reaching for a pen to write a press release asking for more money from the government”.
No more signposting
In the midst of cuts across the board, Paterson says the many projects that police could send people to get extra support are disappearing fast.
“There’s been so much good work that’s happened over the last 15 years, the community engagement and people working together. It’s changed so much from what I remember”
This is echoed by Darren Jones MP, who says that “every single meeting” he has with the police, the council, public sector organisations, community groups and residents is about the impact of austerity politics and cuts to funding. He says they are “undermining the entire fabric of our community”.
“They’re all desperate to provide people with the kind of infrastructure and support that people need, and they just can’t because they’re constantly having to cut back. And what that means, is that the role of the state locally is only going to be present in the most severe of cases. And that’s not just in policing, that’s also in health and housing.”
Southmead is a tight-knit community of people doing what they can with very limited and decreasing resources. It’s the same story all over Bristol, but the most deprived areas are inevitably hit the hardest. The numbers don’t add up: demand is on the increase while the money rapidly declines. It’s not a sustainable situation.
However, Paterson remains hopeful. “There’s been so much good work that’s happened over the last 15 years, the community engagement and people working together. It’s changed so much from what I remember. The quality of life is better than what it used to be 20 years ago, back then no one spoke to the police, stolen cars were being ridden around every night, burglary was very high… And the community’s done it, mind you.
“There’s still so much positive stuff going on here. I’ve still got a lot of faith in the future of Southmead, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”