The common media portrayal of Hartcliffe as being closer to Baghdad than Bedminster is clearly nonsense. But the issue is raw and touches on deeper questions.
Steff Probert is in the thick of it. The Swansea boy who married a Hartcliffe girl is grappling with an issue at the forefront of many people’s minds in the community: Youth anti-social behaviour.
The issue no longer dominates the headlines as it did in the era of Tony Blair’s ASBOs and David Cameron hugging hoodies. But for many neighbourhoods, there are significant concerns about how young people, mainly boys, are behaving.
While the common media portrayal of Hartcliffe as being closer to Baghdad than Bedminster is clearly bullshit (the highest levels of anti-social behaviour are on the Harbourside where adults get drunk), the issue is real and raw. It ranges from lads just hanging around in the day being boisterous and careless, to letting off fireworks in a busy car park, buses full of passengers getting bricks chucked at them or their engine covers torn off, all the way to arson of a police car.
Several residents said that older people are afraid to go to the shops, and a receptionist at the Symes Avenue Library told me that colleagues had to take time off after having had crisps and swear words thrown at them.
But behind the headlines is a complicated context: from the simple matter of a lack of resources to stickier subjects like aspiration and growing up.
Steff isn’t one for moaning, though. He wants to see schools, politicians, the community and parents taking responsibility. “Ultimately I think they’re victims too. The stuff they do is awful, it has to be addressed. But they’re children and they feel let down in many ways and what are we going to do to try stop that?”
More than a game
It’s 4.15pm on a blustery day and I’m waiting outside the gates of a football pitch with a dozen boys aged 12-16. We’re waiting for Steff to run a kick-about he organises in as a community development worker for Hartcliffe and Withywood Community Partnership. In between their conversations about bikes, football and a cousin getting into a fight, I ask where they would be if not here. They look pretty glum when saying they would be inside playing computer games (another cause for concern, no doubt) or just hanging around. Getting into trouble? No, one of them says, “not like the Morrisons lot”, referring to the group of boys that hang around the car park at Symes Avenue. Despite being able to see right across the city to the suspension bridge, the lads don’t tend to go into town.
“In an unrivalled feat of antisocial behaviour, Theresa May’s party sucked money, dignity and opportunity from communities”
Steff arrives with three other men, volunteers who are putting in a couple of hours every week. The kids are loving the footie, but for Steff this is more than a game. “The big thing in my job is I want to build different cultures. It’s hard to stop the fact that young lads might like to drive around on stolen motorbikes. But I can promote different cultures which give people enjoyment but also keeps them safe.”
The issue of respect often comes up. But, “if you’ve grown up in an environment as difficult as some of these kids, you won’t have been shown respect” says Steff. “So, you’ve got to meet people where they’re at.” And that’s what the football sessions are about and the recruitment of older volunteers as positive role models.
In a community racked by poverty and lack of opportunity but bombarded with the pressure to buy new, better and more ‘stuff’, role models easily end up as those who have got that stuff by what Steff describes as “entrepreneurial but questionable means”.
I’m sitting in the canteen of Merchant’s Academy in Withywood with someone who pretty well fits the picture of a good role model. “When I was younger I was causing chaos in the community,” says Levi Hodge. Levi is 22 and from Knowle West. He knows what it’s like to be from an area held back by underinvestment and snobbery. It’s this experience that helps in his job working with young people who are having a hard time, like the one sitting with his head in his hands next to a teacher a few tables away. So what makes a good role model? “Kids from this sort of area need to see real proof of someone doing well who is living and breathing what they have”.
Levi’s team works with students drawn from one of the UK’s most deprived areas in a programme of learning, through a mixture of alternative activities, therapeutic work and behavioural discipline.
The latter of these is at the centre of a vexed debate on the rates of exclusions, especially by academies not controlled by the council.
In 2017 Merchants’ Academy’s behaviour policy found itself the subject of a splash by the Daily Mail, “Is this the strictest school in Britain?”, detailing the school’s behavioural and dress code policy.
Unsurprisingly, there’s more to it than the Mail’s take. As Steff says, “It’s true that exclusions are creating an awful underclass of young people. Getting kicked out of school early is not doing them any favors. But it’s also true that these school staff are the most capable people of dealing with these kids, most trained, the most dedicated. And they can’t deal with these kids with the resources they have.”
Levi sees says the behavioural policy as working to help young people have boundaries and exclusions as an absolute last resort and resources are scarce. “I’ll bend over backwards, I’m happy doing nightimes and all that. But there’s only so much you can do without the funding”.
Nevertheless, UK wide school exclusions have been on a steep rise every year since 2013, fuelling a debate on the connection to antisocial behaviour and a “school to prison” pipeline, with the Ministry of Justice finding that half the prison population had been excluded.
I chatted to the “Morrisons lot”, the lads found hanging around the car park or listening to music on their phones in the library at Symes Avenue. They quickly went from rowdy to shy, but confirmed what I already knew: most are outside mainstream schooling and in alternative provision which may involve just a couple of hours a day, if they turn up at all.
Carrots and sticks
Over the years, the police have been given far reaching power to address alleged antisocial behaviour. Including by Theresa May as Home Secretary whose party, in an unrivalled feat of antisocial behaviour, sucked money, dignity and opportunity from communities to pay for a debt created by bailing out the worlds’ bankers.
Inevitably there are calls for tougher policing, but PC Ben Jefferies, the neighbourhood beat manager for Hartcliffe and Withywood, has other ideas. “You don’t want to be criminalising people when they’re 13 for something that they’re not really aware of, or don’t have the life experiences to be able to make a proper decision about”.
While the police certainly will and do use these powers, PC Jefferies’ team has taken another approach. Not least as some of the kids are open about seeking out chases from the police, and a simple fact: “Kids like hanging around with their friends. Instead of just moving the problem on you have got to address it, and give them somewhere to go.”
Initiatives have included directly bringing in parents to deal with situations and working with Bristol City FC, a cycling charity and the local Morrisons to organise events in the Symes Avenue car park. Morrisons also sponsor the Police’s mobile CCTV unit.
“We come across some really sad stories” says PC Jeffries. “We talk to some of the kids and by the time they’ve done their SATs at primary school and underachieved they’ve realised that what’s the point of trying hard at secondary school, because they’ve already been told they’re not going to achieve.”
But what does achievement or aspiration look like for young men from a community where up to 50% of children live in poverty and where life expectancy is a full 10 years less than their counterparts 15 minutes away in Hotwells?
Steff is fully behind any young person, but also wants to acknowledge all the people just getting on given some harsh realities. “People want to hear about kids who have gone on to become astronauts. That would be great. But listen; If you come from a family with generations of unemployment because of the factories closing down or whatever and you’ve got yourself a job, that’s fantastic.”
Austerity as antisocial behaviour
Kaz Higgins can be found at the front of anti-austerity protests, dropping her daughter off at college or working behind the till at Iceland on Symes Avenue, where eggs were once thrown at them by some of the ‘Morrisons lot’.
“If you actually speak to them, they’re not bad kids” she says over a coffee in the Morrisons cafe, full of families and pensioners having a bit of lunch.
“With austerity, in the long run it’s going to cost more anyway” she says, reeling off the social and economic price of eight years of cuts, from unemployment, crime, social services, lost opportunities and of course antisocial behaviour.
Austerity is taking its toll on people’s lives too. According to the council’s ‘Quality of life survey’, 47% of Hartcliffe residents feel that crime and safety has got worse in the past three years, double the Bristol average.
So what to do? “We need to invest in our youth, because they are our future” Kaz says, so that aspiration means being a good neighbour as much as it does becoming a solicitor.
It’s a simple statement of fact, that the many community workers, volunteers and residents in Hartcliffe and countless other areas know and feel.
WHY I WROTE THIS
Having spoken to dozens of people in and around Hartcliffe, antisocial behaviour is very real issue for communities. It’s also a lazy buzzword used by the media and politicians. I wanted to take a deeper look and listen to people who are taking the issue on in all its complexity.