• 7.3% of the UK population experience persistent poverty, that’s roughly 4.6 million people [Source].
• There were 3.9 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2014-15 [Source].
• About 67% of the UK’s poor children are from working families [Source].
The statistics above are worrying – yet these don’t even scratch the surface when it comes to understanding poverty in the UK. It’s only when you go beyond the numbers and meet the people at the sharp-end to see how these statistics manifest themselves in the day-to-day problems faced by individuals and local communities, that the reality of what life is really like in some parts of the UK truly hits home.
It was brought under the spotlight this week with the airing of ‘Britain’s Forgotten Men’ on BBC Three (currently available on iPlayer) – an illuminating documentary filmed over the course of a year exploring what life’s like on some of Britain’s most deprived estates.
Behind the palpable anger, resentment and frustration, the series ‘finds a spirit of camaraderie among the estates that are fighting to stay above water – fighting not to be forgotten’. One of the programme’s stand-out characters is one Greg Davis of The United Estate of Wythenshawe (UEW) – a heavy weights gym and boxing club founded to get local young people off the street and out of trouble.
As a member of Sported and beneficiary of our free Volunteer Mentoring Service, we caught up with Greg to discuss the programme, politics and the importance of understanding inner city culture.
“Being a group that promotes the culture of inner cities, we normally get approached when there’s been a shooting, stabbing or some kind of negative activity that’s commonly attributed to tough, working class areas.
Inner cities have been forgotten. The two questions I always ask are – who represents inner cities and where are we represented? Inner cities don’t have any credible spokespeople. If anything, we’ve got the reverse – we’re demonised. The people typically placed as the spokesperson for inner cities are predominantly, but not exclusively, of a criminal persuasion. So we don’t have anyone to say how bad things are. If someone does dare to stand up and say how bad things really are, we are either ignored or treated with disdain – tarred with the criminal brush or labelled as a ‘gangster’, ‘thug’, ‘hoodie’, ‘chav’ or ‘pikey’.
Despite the obvious social challenges, we need to show that there are good people in these communities that are trying to make a difference.”
Do you think decision makers – Government, local councils etc – really understand the social problems and challenges communities like Wythenshawe face?
“Categorically not. We have no political representation whatsoever. Wythenshawe is a typical working class, Northern, inner city town. When we vote, we vote for the Labour party, that’s non-negotiable. In the 2015 General Election, Labour lost in style and the first comment they made in the media was ‘We need to reconnect with the middle-classes’! The working classes are not on any of the parties’ political agenda and that regrettably includes Labour.
There’s a huge gulf between ‘the haves’ and ‘the have nots’. How can any person who earns £80,000 a year, lives in a comfortable house, sends his children to a private school, truly represent a council estate?’
In the programme you mentioned need to fix the metaphorical crack in the ceiling – in your eyes what are the main problems and what would be the first steps to addressing them?
‘As a necessity you’ve got to identify who the real community leaders are. In 1981 there were riots on Moss Side – Middle-England was shocked about what was going on. The Chief Police Constable at the time was James Anderton and one of the comments he made – which was amazingly brave – was ‘I’m going to give the community leaders three days to sort it out. If they can’t sort it out the police will move in’. What went wrong was the people who the Police and authorities perceived to be the community leaders were not the same people the local people knew to be the real community leaders. Had they gone to the right people, that riot could have been prevented. On every inner city estate across the country, there are always people on the estate who are elevated to the status of leader. There are people on this estate that are of leadership quality – why not use them?
When we put together our Management Team it was a process of identifying the real community leaders: Who do people look up to? Who do they go to in a crisis? And inviting them to form the management team. It’s as simple as that.”
What makes The United Estates’ model so effective?
“We recognise the importance of identifying and engaging with real local leaders who give access and open lines of communication to the real hard-to-reach youth gangs. Combining these two social groups offers massive energy, creative genius, local knowledge, positive direction. We have tapped into the energy and creativity that is needed to produce and develop a street gang, and have used it to builds a youth club for kids that don’t go to youth clubs. This in turn provides a platform converting that energy from ‘gang culture’ into ‘positive social and community enterprise’.
We are entirely staffed by local people, we have our ear to the ground and, all be it on an informal level we have become expert in gang intervention and conflict resolution – more out of necessity than desire. I think the time has come for more formal training in these vitally important areas. Quite often, we are the first port of call for ‘warring’ factions on the estate, especially from young people and those involved in gang culture or any form of criminality, due to the strong local distrust of the police and authorities.”
How is the club going and what are your plans for the future?
“Our club evolves rather than develops. It’s not a case of ‘If we build it, they will come’. It’s the reverse – when they come, we’ll build around them. It’s out of necessity – we address a need as it’s there. The beauty of being local is that we are both responsive and reflective of real local needs. We live on the estate, the entire Management team lives on the estate, the users and the people we employ all live on the estate. It makes us very flexible, but very responsive.”
How easy do you find it to access funding?
“The gym brings in the most revenue. We have a dance studio. For me – the person responsible for fundraising – I’d rather go to the dentist! I get the impression the people writing the questions – they’ve no real grasp of the inner cities. Likewise, when I’ve filled in an application form, the person at the other end reading the form, again have they got a grasp? Fundraising for us is totally hit and miss.”
For more information about The United Estates please visit http://unitedestates.org/
The full series of Britain’s Forgotten Men is currently available on iPlayer and YouTube.