Evening Standard Richard Godwin
21 September 2012
The Pembury Estate in Hackney usually makes the headlines for the wrong reasons. Last summer, at the height of the riots, residents watched as a crowd of about 300 barricaded their mansion blocks with burning debris. It was here that a police car, containing a policeman, was set on fire. This is the home of the Pembury Boys, one of London’s most notorious gangs.
Speak to the young residents and there are a lot of things that they are unhappy about. But all their problems — from troubled police relations to their own feelings of helplessness — are really symptoms of unemployment. If middle class university graduates cannot find jobs, imagine what it’s like if you grew up here.
“Most of the time, people don’t even want your CV,” said Cain, a bright, articulate 20-year-old, who was once told that his BTEC in media studies might get him somewhere. “I’ve tried for apprenticeships. I’ve tried to do projects with charities. I’ve been doing voluntary work. They’ve been telling me: ‘If you work on this, then we’ll get you a job.’ They sell dreams — but when it comes down to it, they don’t do nothing to help.”
Cain, bored and frustrated, is typical of the young men here. He did want to work in the media but now he is no longer fussy. Any job will do. “There’s thousands like me,” he said. “Out of all the people that I grew up with, I don’t know anyone that’s in a steady job. A couple have got maybe a little job in retail, but no one’s building a career for themselves. It’s not like they sold it to us in school. Get your grades, build a career, life’s going to be good. It’s a lie. A lot of people round here are living day-to-day. You can’t really think about the future. You’re thinking: How am I going to eat?”
So soon after the Olympics were supposed to help regenerate Hackney, there is little to cheer on an autumn night in the Pembury. We gather around a bench in the children’s playground, surrounded on all sides by the same looming buildings. Another youth walks past, and seeing me, hisses at Cain and his friends for “snitching”. But they want to talk.
“Right now, the Government is just making rich people richer and poor people poorer,” said Kevin, 18. Daniel, 20, thought that the Olympics might provide opportunities in construction. “That’s my thing. I’ve applied for the jobs. I’ve got the qualifications that they’ve been asking for on the ads — but they haven’t got back to me. I don’t see any reason.”
Cain had similar hopes for London 2012. He applied for SIA security training through the government-backed Free 2 Learn scheme (“the worst-run organisation in Britain”). After three months of waiting for his certificate, the opportunity passed.
“I finally got onto the course and then they told us that the Army would be doing all the jobs. Because [the security contractor G4S] didn’t recruit enough staff. That’s the whole reason I started the course. It’s a joke, man.” Cain refers to a lot of things as a “joke”. “How much did we spend on the Olympics? Nine billion? When you’ve got so much poverty in a first world country, that’s too much.”
The laughter, falling round the playground, sounds dark and hollow.
They all feel that education ill-equipped them for work. Daniel says his first school, Homerton, was like a jail. “Look what their youths grow up to be — murderers.” And when he moved to Lammas School in Waltham Forest he learned even less. “There it was just copying — it wasn’t really learning. They’d put all the answers on the board.”
CAIN agrees. He briefly lived with his mother in New Zealand and was shocked at how far behind he was by their standards. “I’m not confident in my writing, or in maths. I should have been taught these things. In other places they’re learning these things.” He now worries about how to put a CV together. “I don’t even know what it’s supposed to look like.”
There are organisations trying hard to help. Cain has secured an interview for a security job through the Hackney Council for Voluntary Services. The Peabody Trust has an onsite Digital Learning Centre which helped 15 young people (16-24-year-olds) from the estate into work last year.
However, the endemic problem is the fact that there are few people they can call on informally for advice, in the way young middle class people take for granted.
“The only older people we see here are the ones that have turned to drugs, or alcoholics,” said Cain. “They’re still here from 15 years ago, doing exactly the same thing: fighting and chatting s**t. Say there were people here with good jobs, earning good money — do you think any of the young ones would want to turn to crime?”
His own father died when he was young. “To this day, I don’t have a male in my life who I’ve watched building anything, who has gone down the right road and it’s paid off for him. We’re just out here, watching each other.”
“That’s why most of these kids turn to drugs,” added Kevin. “Drugs does more for people than jobs do.”
They are reluctant to talk about crime — “every time this estate’s in the media, it’s always crime, crime, crime” — but even for those who are determined to avoid the drugs gangs, a criminal record is easy to come by. They show me camera-phone footage of a police raid the night before, during which Kevin was arrested.
He protests his innocence. “Everything had been calm, everyone was just chilling. Now I’ve got a court case for assault. This is why it’s hard to get jobs. People come down here looking for a reaction. They get a reaction — we get a criminal record.”
Kevin is the most qualified of the group. He counts himself lucky to have been to Mossbourne, regarded as a model inner-city school, where he got an A-level in business studies. He hopes to build a career in business or banking, but in the meantime, he is “90 per cent sure” of securing a job at a branch of Costa Coffee. Now he is worried that his court case will put even that small opening under threat.
“I’m worried that anything in my future will be under threat, to be honest. One criminal charge can give a bad impression, and they won’t know the full story. I just don’t want it to f**k up my life.”
“I do think it’s a trap here. Everyone ends up going to jail,” added Daniel.
I ask what it would take to get them out of that trap.
“If they went into estates, showed youths avenues out of there, apprenticeships,” said Cain. “If the Government even went to companies and said ‘We want this many placements’ this year. If they helped just one person, there probably would be a bit of hope.”
He becomes agitated, addressing my Dictaphone directly: “Please get us a job!” The others laugh. He is sincere. “If employers are out there, looking for some hard workers, come down to Pembury Estate. Let the youth know that you’ve got jobs going. Trust me, you’ll get as many good workers as you need. Everyone round here wants to do better.
“They want to work, they want to provide for their families, they want to leave. No one wants to be on benefits for the rest of their lives.”
Some names have been changed