Peckham: a suburb apart?

Claims that the South London district is a ‘war zone’ are wide of the mark, though residents recognise their lives could be far better.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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I hopped on the number 63 bus outside the spiked offices in central London and 30 minutes later I was pushing up my brolly in rainy Peckham, south London. It looked like someone had just spent £290million on the biggest Lego set in the world but with bricks of only one colour. It certainly didn’t look much like a war zone.

You might have been given the impression that gang violence is rife here, after there were four murders in three days last week. Newspaper headlines claimed there was a ‘CLIMATE OF FEAR’ in Peckham, and that guns ‘plague’ the suburb where ‘gang culture’ is widespread. Having lived in Peckham for the best part of five years, none of this accords with my experience. If Damilola Taylor, the young boy killed in a stairwell here in 2000, were alive today, he wouldn’t recognise the place. All the housing where his estate stood is now shiny and new. There’s the Damilola Taylor Centre, built so that young people would kill time rather than each other. Crime – including gun crime – seems to be falling. Fear of crime, however, seems widespread.

For all the furore over last week’s tragic killings, Peckham is moving up in the world. Rising house prices are pushing the kind of people who would have bought in leafier neighbourhoods like East Dulwich and Camberwell further east into Peckham. That is not surprising considering that across the main road from the new estates there is street after street of spacious Victorian properties. Peckham was once a well-to-do suburb and the money is coming back.

In west Peckham, Bellenden Road has recently had a facelift, with a little help from local artists like Anthony ‘Angel of the North’ Gormley. In amongst the trees, you can find a sprinkling of nice middle-class cafés serving croissants and espresso, a boutique bookshop and trendy bars. A little further down is a street market, nicknamed ‘Little Lagos’, where you can get all sorts of exotic foods from the piles of yams and plantains to the snails in shells the size of your fist.


The main shopping street, Rye Lane, is a mix of big name shops and a glut of Halal butchers. Another effect of the large West African population is the proliferation of little churches sprouting in and above shops, all with distinctly charismatic leanings. Walk the other way and you’re soon on Peckham Rye, the wide-open park where the young William Blake famously had a vision of angels ‘bespangling every bough like stars’. My own neck-of-the-woods, Nunhead, on the east side of Peckham, is a dream for those middle-class types who like to shop local with a butcher, baker (but no candlestick maker) jostling with the greengrocer and the fishmonger on Evelina Road.

Peckham still has its fair share of crime. In the borough of Southwark, which includes Peckham, serious crimes of violence run at about two or three times the national average. Shocking as that may sound, in real terms it still means less than one offence per thousand people per year. Guns may have become glamorous in recent years, and easier to get hold of. Yet it’s worth pointing out that, behind the short burst of gun killings in this suburb last week, gun crime in Britain seems to be falling. The number of people killed by guns in the UK fell from 75 in 2005 to 50 in 2006. This suggests that recent comparisons between Peckham and somewhere like the Bronx in the 1980s are way off the mark; in America, around 30,000 people a year are killed by guns.

One newspaper article on Peckham cited knife crime stats in general as evidence that youthful gang culture is running riot: ‘Figures from the Home Office reveal that the number of deaths from sharp instruments such as knives between 1998 and 1999 stood at 202. But by 2003 that number had increased by more than 25 per cent to 268.’ (1) Yet these figures are for the whole of Britain, not just London or any of its suburbs, and they include killings not only by knives but also by ‘sharp implements’ such as broken bottles and glasses. Also, a majority of murders by sharp implement take place in domestic settings between people who know each other, rather than during street brawls or gang stand-offs.


Of course, there is still a sizeable proportion of low-income households in Peckham. And for every trendy bar there’s a dodgy drinking hole. But it is in many ways transformed from the area that the national press descended upon in 2000 after the murder of Damilola Taylor. There has been a ‘regeneration’ of many of the housing estates. And no one is keener to kill the myth of the Peckham war zone than the residents themselves, as abundantly illustrated by a meeting I attended last night.

Called to discuss ‘what should be done’ about the recent killings and about local crime (particularly the danger of young boys getting involved), it was packed. Over 300 people filled the room, with those unable to get a seat listening in through the windows. The first speaker was borough police commander, Malcolm Tillyer, who reminded me a little of Michael Palin’s caring-and-sharing centurion in The Life of Brian rather than your stereotypical hard-nosed cop. He noted that crime, including gun crimes and robberies, has fallen, but claimed that young people are still getting sucked into ‘gangs’ or ‘groups’. Local MP Harriet Harman talked about what politicians might do to improve life in Peckham.

Decima Francis, co-founder of the Boyhood to Manhood Foundation, suggested there were ‘Two Peckhams’: the daytime one of people working hard and supporting families, and the night-time one where people apparently lead altogether more dubious lives. She called on people to pray for these people ‘between 11 at night and four in the morning’. At one point, someone in the audience suggested that there were too many adults in the room while a lot of young people were left standing outside. So, at the chair’s suggestion, some of the adults gave up their seats; the empty spaces left behind suggested that not many young people wanted to take up the offer to come inside.

The recent debate about Peckham provides something of a microcosm of how inner-city problems are viewed these days – either as ‘crime waves’ or as psychological problems. On one side, some of the tabloids and certain politicians claim that gangs are swarming the streets of Peckham, when in fact anyone who visits the place, or looks at its violent crime statistics, will see that is not the case. On the other side, it is argued that the people of Peckham, especially the young people, need to be valued more, as if their problems are therapeutic rather than social in origin. Camilla Batmangheldijh of the children’s charity Kids Company says young gang members in Peckham are not ‘feral children’ but rather are the ‘forgotten ones’, whose ‘basic needs of love, food and shelter’ are not being met. She says that in such circumstances youth workers and mentors should act in loco parentis to provide young people with ‘human relationships which are so lacking in their lives’.

To the extent that there are issues of crime and disorder in parts of Peckham, these are social problems that require social solutions. Yet listening to both sides of the debate, you could be forgiven for thinking that the problem is individual behaviour, which is bringing down an entire suburb. Some see out-of-control youth as the cause of Peckham’s problems, and therefore the solution as more policing; others think the problem is that youth are unloved and therefore the solution is therapeutic intervention by social workers.

At last night’s meeting, many were more interested in taking some collective responsibility for improving the lives of those who live in Peckham. Individuals who run local community groups bemoaned the lack of funding. Funds had been cut, they said, or conditions had been imposed that made things extremely difficult for them. What were kids meant to do with their time, they asked? Others said that adults should take more responsibility for the local area. West Ham footballer Anton Ferdinand emphasised the importance of family. A schoolteacher called on adults to stop being afraid of supposedly feral children. He complained about spending too much school time ‘breaking up fights’ and said that when school finishes children generally believe they can do whatever they like because adults won’t stop them. ‘We don’t need to be scared of kids’, he said.

The idea of taking control of matters for ourselves – from watching out for children to involving ourselves more in local life – seems far more sensible than waiting for the authorities to do something. And yet, still the terms of the debate were wrong in many ways. Our decisions shouldn’t be driven by the latest tragic but thankfully rare killing, but rather by how we want to shape our day-to-day lives. Whether the feisty mood of last night’s meeting turns into a sustained change in circumstances remains to be seen. It is, I guess, up to us Peckham-dwellers.

(1) The Peckham gang culture that killed my sister, The Times, London, 11 February 2007

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