All over the country, tenant activists are transforming neglected and crime-ridden estates. Saba Salman met five women who are leading the way.
Stockwell Park Estate community centre, south London, 1987. Bullet holes pockmark the ceiling. Joint butts litter the floor. Straws poke out of grubby, empty bottles strewn across the room – evidence of crack cocaine smoked by the addicts who have taken over the block.

The same community centre, 2003. The walls are painted, the floors carpeted; there's an IT suite with a dozen top-of-the-range computers. A network of CCTV cameras deter drug dealers. Tenants have steered £42m of government Estate Action funding towards landscaping, new windows, roofs and street lighting. In the year to March 2002, all rent arrears were collected and 91% of repairs were done on time – a massive improvement on the 50% done on time in the 1990s. The estate is still far from perfect (after all, it is in Lambeth, where unemployment runs at 8.6%, nearly twice the 4.9% average for Greater London). Cannabis is still a problem – albeit a more tolerable one than crack – but Stockwell Park is no longer notorious.

"It's a different planet now," says Julie Fawcett, chair of the Stockwell Park Community Trust, the 23-strong tenant management organisation. "Before, there was no community." Fawcett, who is in her early 40s, is one of the UK's leading tenant activists. She joined the tenants' association in 1988 and in 1995, when it became a tenant management organisation, she stayed on as chair. In December 2002 she was appointed to the Housing Corporation's board.

She is known for her rousing, unscripted speeches and her hands-on approach, chastising the hooded teens who congregate in stairwells or knocking on doors to get tenants' views. The story begins 22 years ago, when Fawcett was pregnant with her first child and living in a privately rented flat in Waterloo, south London. She was made redundant from her job as a shorthand and typing trainer and with her husband also out of work, the couple fell into arrears. Lambeth council offered them a two-bedroom flat in Stockwell Park. "There were no light fittings and the walls were damp," she says. "We bought a rubber plant to make it more homely and decided to move in the next day. When we came back, the plant was ruined and the windows were smashed."

In total, the couple were burgled 15 times in the first year. Fawcett realised that tenants had become powerless, putting up with crumbling blocks and held to ransom by the estate's disenfranchised youths. After the 1981 riots in neighbouring Brixton, neither council nor police seemed willing to risk resentment by cracking down. "No one was taking control. Whenever you left the estate, you'd be burgled. None of the authorities were doing anything to improve the place."

Frustration drove Fawcett to join the tenants' movement. She attended a tenants' meeting held by Lambeth in the estate's run-down community centre, and was not impressed. "People were angry, everyone was shouting. Suddenly I realised that if you wanted to get anything done, you had to get to decision-makers. You weren't going to do that through some large-scale, badly organised public meeting."

Her first foray into community relations was starting a playgroup on the estate in 1988 (her own children are now 21, 19, 17 and 14). Mothers told her how desperate they were for out-of-school activities for their children. Then, to foster a sense of community, the tenants' association held a fun day complete with bouncy castle, barbecue and live music in 1992. It was the estate's first "neighbourly" event, says Fawcett. "It was a huge triumph, it instilled a sense of 'can do'."

The area's disgruntled youth remained a problem, but they needed help themselves. Fawcett and other volunteers cleaned up the community centre, bringing in their own computer games for the youngsters.

"We turned the tables on those making the estate difficult by trying to include them," she says. "These young people have zero chance. If they're excluded at 15 they can't sign on, they're a drain on their parents. We had to provide them with a base." The centre now sees 400 teenagers a year, and a variety of activities is available to them, from pool to IT training.

Life at the sharp end
The secret of the tenant management organisation's success, says Fawcett, is that tenants often know more about living on an estate than policy-makers. "We'd say 'it's very interesting that you've been to the London School of Economics, but do you know the estate?' We had a message to get across: it wasn't looking at the problem as just housing, it's about education, it's about people's fears for their children."

Fawcett's is a challenging role, particularly when dealing with macho youngsters who resent "do-gooders". She has read insulting graffiti about herself and encountered verbal abuse, but has developed a very thick skin in the process. In one incident in 1989, for instance, an unruly teenager burst into her under-fives playgroup.

"I told him to leave. He punched me in the stomach. I got up. He punched me again. I wasn't frightened, adrenalin took over. It taught me that you can take a punch. You can get up again.

"You have to be determined, resilient and tolerant," she says of her work, "and have to have the right sort of team."

The next step for Stockwell Park is transfer. The Estate Action cash is running out, so transfer is the only way to further improve the area. A ballot is planned for next July and a "yes" vote will mean Fawcett handing over the reins. She is loath to do this, but realises it is the only way to bring in investment.

Fawcett is proud of the tenant management organisation's achievements, but says she was only trying to create a better home for her children. "I was trying to protect my family, to create a nicer environment.

"There is now hope here. We can see it's changing."

Wonder women

  • Azara Issifu is founder and coordinator of the Mbolaw Project in Greenwich, south London, chair of South Greenwich Community Forum. She also chaired tenants’ group BME Taran for a year in 2002. A tenant on the Ferrier Estate in Greenwich since 1986, she launched race relations group Mbolaw (which means “togetherness” in Gambian) after the death of Stephen Lawrence 10 years ago, to counsel families on the estate. She also runs a parenting programme, with 20 parents on her books. In 2000, she was named Woman of the Year by Greenwich council. “I detest inequality, I think we should all be allowed to fulfil our own potential,” says 49-year-old Issifu. “I like helping people.”
  • Debbie Hay, 41, is a consumer panel member at the Housing Corporation, a board member at Sanctuary Housing Association and launched a tenant participation consultancy, DHA, in September. Hay moved to the Tennyson Way estate in Exmouth 10 years ago after becoming homeless. Shocked by its lack of facilities for young people, she started a voluntary project called Street Play, teaching kids to skip. Demand grew, more than 100 children joined and the project led to the launch of a community centre. Volunteering led Hay to a degree in social policy and she is now doing a PhD in tenant participation. “I get a kick out of articulating the things that a community wants, getting the information to the people who need it.”
  • Yvonne Todd of the Eyres Monsell Estate in Leicester is a leading expert on antisocial behaviour. Seven years ago, she began a scheme to encourage tenants to report nuisance. Long before it was high on the government’s agenda, Todd was accompanying witnesses to court and explaining how antisocial behaviour orders worked. Witness Cocoon, the project she began on her estate, went citywide four years ago. “What inspires me is making life easier for those who don’t know how to help themselves,” says Todd, 50, who is now an advice and development officer at the estate’s tenants’ and residents’ association. “Knowing we’ve made a difference is important.”
  • Lynn Hay, 41, is tenant chair of 1066 Housing Association in Hastings and works full-time at the local Council for Voluntary Services. She steered 1066 through the supervision that ended last year and is known for her pioneering work consulting younger tenants, including setting up junior residents’ associations. Involvement in the community is vital, says Hay, who still lives on a 1066 estate: “If you get involved, you have a say; if you don’t, you don’t have a right to complain.”