Dreaming Spires and Screaming Tyres

A resident of the Blackbird Leys estate in Oxford describes the background to the recent riots there.

For a week during the summer Blackbird Leys, a housing estate in Oxford, was catapulted (and I choose that word carefully) to the forefront of public attention after a sudden and apparently spontaneous outbreak of violence. Rioting occurred and petrol bombs were thrown when police tried to break up crowds of young people who had come to watch a display of the driving of stolen cars, something of a local pastime. Why did this happen? What is the origin of this conflict with authority in the shape of the police which is such a feature of Blackbird Leys? And why did it erupt on this occasion, as it never had done before, into such open violence?

The violence and conflict was not the product of simple material deprivation; unemployment at 9 percent, but this is not the highest in Oxford. It was more subtle; to do with things which are more intangible; boredom, police insensitivity and the alienation of a whole category of people from mainstream values, opportunities and ideals, and the establishment of a youth culture with its own values which are irreconcilable with the bourgeois values of the wider society.

Blackbird Leys is a large featureless 1960s council estate with a population of around 9,000 which, although it is technically part of the city of Oxford, is attached to the south of Oxford, outside the main Ring Road, in a way which gives it the definite appearance of being an afterthought, something which is artificial and created, not something natural or organic but an excrescence, manufactured to cope with a category of people somehow left out of mainstream society. This feeling of exclusion both physical and social is real and tangible. The actual situation of the estate—you have to go there specially; it is not on the way to anywhere—is mirrored by social exclusion, the feeling of being somehow outside the rest of Oxford and not integrated into the community at large.

The estate itself is oval-shaped and lacks any proper social centre or focus. The nearest thing to this is “the oval”—roads around a rectangular space with trees which functions as a traffic island. It is around this space that most of the driving stolen cars for excitement and danger takes place. The whole estate with its long straight roads is laid out in a way that encourages this joy-riding and speeding. Recently humps that were put in by the City Council to slow traffic down on these long roads have made joy-riding even more exciting and have only served to inconvenience legitimate traffic.

Blackbird Leys was originally built to house Oxford’s population overspill and to serve the nearby Cowley car plant, an ambitious programme of public building which one could never imagine happening today. The reality was quite different: it was not built with people and their real needs in mind and was a planning failure. Blackbird Leys is now perceived as an area which is “bad” and which concentrates Oxford City’s unwanted into one area, a sort of semi-unofficial social asylum, housing, for example, those with criminal records, and “problem” families. Not surprisingly it also has a high immigrant population. It is also large enough to have its own social differences. Away from the centre are streets of mostly privately-owned houses whereas nearer in and closer to the centre are the more regular and featureless council properties.

Blackbird Leys also borders on to the south Oxfordshire countryside with its picture-postcard villages. Garsington is one of these and is a particularly exclusive small village (exclusive in a real economic sense—it excludes others from participation in its way of life and in its attractiveness) with its beautiful small church, manor-house and thatched cottages. From the centre of Garsington can be seen a swathe of green country which suddenly turns grey and out of which rise tower blocks. The contrast is striking, both between the grey and green and between the life of some and the life of others. From the centre of Blackbird Leys one can see a pleasant green wooded hill which speaks of an otherness to the regularity and featurelessness of the area.

This real sense of difference both from the city and the country only serves to heighten the isolation of the residents. If you have money you can participate in the richness and variety of life, you can live in attractive surroundings, and if you don’t you are demeaned and devalued and such things as pleasant surroundings are not seen to matter or to be important—or necessary. These social differences will surely be exacerbated even further by the new development of Greater Leys, a private development starting to enclose Blackbird Leys from the south. This is an estate which is very different, both qualitatively and quantitatively from its larger neighbour. A no-man’s-land separates the two and walking across it there is a feeling of stepping from one section of society into another.

Police clampdown

The immediate trigger for the Oxford violence was a long-planned police clampdown on the persistent problem of joy-riding and the opportunity which this gave to frustrated, bored excluded young people in hot weather for a confrontation with authority. By coming in as they did, as a posse, the police made themselves a target for violence and aggression. They were perceived as representing mainstream culture and the interests of the privileged and powerful rather than those of (this particular section of) the working class. Thus they presented a symbol of authority against which the original trouble was a reaction.

This insensitivity made the situation much worse. At the height of the trouble the estate crawled with police spoiling for a row and television camera-crews (I saw some from Germany) and journalists from the national press falling over themselves to film any sign of violence. This turned a fairly small-scale confrontation into one played out for a national and international audience. This, of course, electrified the atmosphere and prolonged the trouble.

Various superficial attempts have been made to improve the situation on the estate. These concern the symptoms but not the underlying disease and, in fact, the situation cannot be resolved within capitalism at all. The wide oval in the centre of the estate where joy-riders do their handbrake turns has been narrowed in a way which has made the featureless, impoverished centre into even more of an eye-sore. The tarmac extensions to the pavements look ugly because no attempt has been made to harmonise them with the existing pavement. Pathetic attempts like this make it more difficult to express the symptoms of the underlying disease, which is capitalism, an economic system, which separates people from each other and makes them compete in a cut-throat way for the necessaries of life; it creates an underclass which never gets a look-in to the better things of life.

What is needed is a wholesale change, a revolution, and end to the misery of private property and the inevitable inequality which goes with it; a new system of society which integrates everyone and distributes its wealth according to the reasonable needs of its members. This new socialist society would abolish at a stroke the problems of deprivation and exclusion of Blackbird Leys and inner-city areas. It would enable the wasted talent of those who are presently excluded on economic grounds from a proper participation in the life of society to be properly developed. The energy squandered on destructive and anti-social pastimes like joy-riding could be put into activities which are more rewarding, fulfilling and socially useful. Young people have much energy, enthusiasm and intelligence and the loss of this is a tragic waste, for society and for those who never fulfil themselves. What is really needed in Oxford is not condemnation from the Home Secretary, nor more police or re-designed pavements but a fundamental change in society.

Iain Jamieson