Viewpoint: Escape from the 'sink' estate

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Poet Byron Vincent spent much of his youth in and around "sink" estates. He argues that corralling the poorest people perpetuates criminality.

I'm a scumbag, or an ex-scumbag to be precise. I'm middle class now. I own a bread-maker and everything.

We tend to think of council estate kids as chippy and aggressive, and many are, but I wasn't, at least not in my primary years. I was into dinosaur encyclopaedias and choose-your-own-adventure books. By the ripe old age of six, I'd decided I was going to be professor of palaeontology at Oxford University. I was a little softy, a knock-kneed bookworm. The violence I saw on the news gave me terrible nightmares and I would often lie awake at night fretting over humanity's capacity for cruelty.

I was at odds with gruffness of the estate, with its surly municipal topiary and brutalist sweet shop that sold individual cigarettes for 5p each. I was a self-proclaimed pacifist, and here's a tip for any prissy but morally-driven sink-estate seven-year-olds - vociferously declaring yourself a pacifist to the local bullies doesn't so much give you a free pass as offer them an invitation. I'd often fight back with pointed and cutting verbosity. This was a terrible strategy and I frequently got my head kicked in.

I didn't grow up to be an Oxford don. When I told my careers officer what I wanted to do for a living he laughed in my face. By the time I was 13 I'd started taking drugs. By the time I was 16 I was homeless and selling drugs.

By the time I was 20 I'd become an addict. The kind of violence that had inspired my childhood nightmares had long since become a reality. I'd been a victim of multiple knife and gun crimes, and on one occasion held hostage and tortured.

The landscape of our morality is malleable. It's dictated to us by the dominant values and customs of our environment.

The culture of Britain's sink estates has evolved, or perhaps more aptly deteriorated, over generations. Over time, extreme behaviours gradually become integrated into the general machinations of daily existence.

Those born into Britain's underclass don't exit the womb with an insatiable desire to shoplift branded sportswear, any more than soldiers are born with a heightened capacity to kill. Yet I watched pretty much all of my peers grow up to engage in sustained criminal activity. Not because of a genetic predisposition. Not because a life of crime is an easy option - it really isn't - but because the people with the worst social and economic problems have been ghettoised and isolated.

I'm from the underclass - now I'm middle class. None of my middle-class friends have been to prison, yet many of those from the estates I grew up on have done time. What are we to make of this?

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Either you believe that people who are born into Britain's disaffected underclass are born with criminal proclivities - a belief which I hope you find bigoted and ridiculous - or you accept that the criminal behaviour of the underclass is the direct consequence of environmental factors. If this behaviour is an environmental construct, then surely there are ethical issues in punishing it. Those with power are reprimanding those with no power, for crimes they themselves would be committing if they'd been born into a different household. To me that is not a functioning society, it's abhorrent.

But, what about personal responsibility, right? Is nobody culpable for their own actions anymore? Let me put it this way, when I was a teenager I was stabbed in the stomach. I thought I was going to die, but I didn't go to the police because I was conditioned to believe that it was my personal responsibility not to.

That sounds stupid. I'm not advocating this behaviour, but that was the dominant cultural ideology and I adhered to it.

I have several examples of council estate body art. There's one scrawled on my forearm, it was done with a hypodermic needle filled with Indian ink. It says "nasty as I wanna-B".

I was tiny for my age - I wasn't a fighter but things had a tendency to flare up out of nowhere and had to be dealt with regardless of my feelings. I remember one such occasion when a local man renowned for his sadism stuck a gun in my face and threatened to kill me. This kind of thing wasn't uncommon, he did it for his own amusement, to assert his dominance and see how I'd react. He had prison tattoos. His gait, language and intonation were predatory and aggressive. So I copied them. The tattoos, the speech patterns, the lot - and it worked. It worked in that potential assailants were less quick to start trouble with me. The problem is, if you maintain a pretence every hour of every day, there comes a point were you're not really pretending anymore, are you?

The only ways to assert status in such a predatory environment were either by demonstrating a capacity for violence or indulging in certain criminal activities.

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As I said, I was homeless as a teenager. A government scheme purportedly aiming to house itinerant youths collected a bunch of us aged between 15 and 21 from the local shelters. If we managed to behave ourselves for six months living together, we got our own flats. The scheme was a disaster - it was run by a private company that specialised in training secretaries. They were ill-prepared for a gaggle of street kids, each displaying an impressive array of social and emotional problems. We were given several weeks of home economics training - but I don't remember anything they taught us at secretary school. I do remember that on the first day the lad who sat next to me threatened to stab me in the neck with his free pen. The communal flats were quickly overrun with drug dealers, gangsters and anyone else who wanted a warm place to conduct their business.

Most of us were either pretty tough or, like me, did a passable impression of it, but there was one kid who didn't quite fit. He even had the temerity to hold down a job in a chicken factory. The same bloke who'd stuck the gun in my face turned up one day with an equally violent cohort. Chicken boy was singled out immediately. They kicked in his bedroom door and battered him down eight flights of stairs. We never saw him again - that was the price of being perceived to be weak. I was 16 and I had nowhere else to go. That day I made a conscious and calculated choice to behave more aggressively.

I can hear the Daily Mail now: "You all heard him, he had a choice…" and yeah, I suppose I did. The choice as I saw it was to go back to sleeping in a bus station or do whatever it took do avoid getting my head caved in by raptor-eyed sociopaths. I had a choice, but it wasn't much of a choice. In the same situation, are you sure you know what you'd do? Unless you've sacrificed a roof over your head to escape the cultural and ethical mores of a violent social group, the answer has to be that you just don't know.

The purpose of these grimy anecdotes is to demonstrate that no matter what your personality type or ethical foundation, circumstance and environment play a dominant role in shaping how we behave.

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Sometimes those who live on the fringes of society make decisions that are outside of the law or mainstream ethical understanding because it's safer for them to do so. As I mentioned, talking to the police was out of the question, which meant that I was completely on my own in terms of protection and justice. If the police ever did intervene, they did so with blatant prejudice and with little or no regard for my safety - even if they knew my life was in danger.

I'm in no way suggesting that all people from sink estates share the same behaviour and ideology. I'm specifically addressing the issue of those whose environmental circumstances have separated them from the cultural and ethical norms of mainstream society.

The underclass of which I speak didn't create itself - it's a product of ghettoisation. Taking a bunch of people with social and fiscal problems and forcing them to live en masse together is an idiotic idea that is destined to create a culture of perpetually spiralling criminality. If we want the disenfranchised underclass to adopt the morality of the mainstream, social housing needs to be integrated into mainstream society. That means individual houses among the private residences. Social housing estates shouldn't be these separate isolated places that keep poor people out of sight and mind. That model is not only distasteful - it clearly breeds problems that affect everyone.

Maybe you're of the opinion that these social problems aren't anything a stint in prison wouldn't fix. Prison suffers from an exaggerated form of the same issues that sink estates do, in that it's a culture where in order to get by you have to engage in a hierarchical system that places murderers at the top of the tree. People from underprivileged backgrounds are far more likely to go to prison anyway. When they return they bring prison's very literal survival-of-the-fittest mentality into a domestic environment, and the two cultures evolve in unison.

We are still bombarded with reactionary histrionics from politicians designed to win votes by feeding fear and ignorance.

Meanwhile nothing genuinely helpful is being done to curb the problem of the growing criminal subculture within Britain's underclass. It baffles me how those in power expect those at the bottom of the social and economic ladder to behave responsibly when the architects of the issues they face take no responsibility for their part.

I hope that next time you have to pass through a dodgy estate and you worry about getting robbed or worse, that you extend that concern to those who live there.

This piece is based on an edited version of Byron Vincent's Four Thought on BBC Radio 4, first broadcast at 20:45 GMT on 19 February. Listen to it here on BBC iPlayer.

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