On Tuesday morning Ealing residents came out on foot, on bicycles, even on mobility scooters, to survey the damage to their town centre wrought by a night of rioting and looting. The Uxbridge Road, Ealing Broadway’s main shopping street, appeared relatively unscathed; Marks and Spencer had a boarded up window, and a traffic cone remained wedged in the glass doors of the Arcadia shopping centre, but the high street chain stores were open for business. The traffic was flowing, the tube was running, and the debris created by the looting and the battles with police was already being removed by council road sweepers.
Along Ealing Green, home of the famous Ealing Studios, it was a different story. The shells of the burnt-out cars and double-decker bus were removed by 9.00am, but fire engines were still in attendance, making safe a shop building which been attacked by arsonists. Smoke blackened the doorway of the mini supermarket, and roof damage suggested that the fire had spread to the flats above. Almost every one of the small independent shops facing the Green had at least one plate glass window smashed. The media were out in force, carefully positioned so that the grass and horse chestnut trees were in shot alongside the police tape, the fire engines and the damaged buildings. Many of the pieces delivered to camera expressed shock and surprise that the trouble had spread to “leafy” Ealing, the Queen of the Suburbs, which was repeatedly described as “affluent.” A BBC journalist made much of the fact that a designer baby-wear shop and an organic food store had been attacked.
Fewer journalists walked across the town centre to Haven Green, another of the open spaces for which Ealing is justly renowned. Again, an entire parade of shops had been smashed. No designer baby-wear here, but restaurants, cafes, a pharmacy, a betting shop and a small Tesco Express. Even the vacant store that once housed Blockbuster had been attacked; the unit had been empty for months and there was nothing to loot, but someone had broken the glass for the sheer enjoyment of doing so. Walking away from the green and into a residential area, the pavement was strewn with broken bottles from looted alcohol and the glass from the car windows casually smashed in passing. Nothing I saw looked like politicised rioters deliberately targeting shops favoured by the rich; the pattern of damage suggested police successfully protecting the chain stores along the Uxbridge Road and in the shopping centre, and looters retaliating by smashing everything they passed as they were forced down side-streets.
No-one on the TV news seemed to be talking about the damage caused in other areas of the borough. At lunchtime, Radio 4 reported that there had been trouble in the nearby town centres of West Ealing, Hanwell and Southall. There was no mention at all of Greenford, although friends tell me that some shops there were damaged too. It seemed that the outside world had fixed on leafy affluence and had little interest in looking beyond it. They’re not the only ones; tell people that you live in Ealing, and the most common response is, “Oh, Ealing’s nice.” Yet according to the 2010 Indices of Multiple Deprivation, Ealing is poorer than Croydon, poorer than Lewisham; it has greater unemployment that Camden or Enfield. If you’re a police officer or a social worker, you might find it easy to forget that you are supposed to be working in a nice borough, because for all it’s an outer London borough, Ealing sometimes feels like it has inner London crime problems. It’s partly it’s a size issue; Ealing is one of the most populous of the 32 London boroughs, with around 230,000 residents. The total number of crimes committed in the year leading up to June 2011 was 34,494, of which 7,751 were violence against the person; compare that with Barnet, another outer London borough with a similar population, but only 26,199 crimes recorded for the same period, of which 4,455 were offences against the person.
Catch the 207 bendy bus eastbound from Ealing Broadway, and you will find yourself in Acton. Nowhere is the contrast between Ealing’s perceived gentility and its social problems more marked. North of the High Street, the large Edwardian terraces are occupied by middle-class couples needing somewhere affordable to raise their kids. Churchfield Road, which runs parallel to the High Street, has growing numbers of gastropubs, independent shops, and cafes advertising gelato and smoothies. Just across the High St is the notorious South Acton Estate, featured last year on Channel 4’s Tower Block of Commons. When I first visited the estate in 2005, I picked my way up a staircase smeared with excrement – impossible to tell whether human or animal – and daubed with graffiti, the wind whistling through the broken window panes. The middle-aged woman I visited told me that once she came home from work, she stayed indoors; the young drug-dealers, many of whom had gang connections, ruled the estate and she felt unsafe to go out after dark. Getting to her own front door was sometimes a challenge in itself, because groups of youths congregated on her landing, exuding menace. She had put in for a swap under the Council’s property exchange scheme, but no-one wanted to move into her flat. She shrugged; who could blame them?
Ealing Council has been engaged in a major regeneration of the South Acton Estate for several years, and Council workers tell me that great progress is being made in improving the estate for residents. Sadly, it remains notorious among criminal justice professionals, particularly for gang activity, and it will take a long time for any image-change to filter through into local perceptions. In 2009/10 52% of pupils at Acton High School, which sits alongside the Estate, achieved grades A*-C at GCSE, by no means the worst performance in the borough, but parents from the north side of the High Street are reluctant to send their children there, often opting to go private or hoping that they can demonstrate enough allegiance to the Church of England to gain a place at the nearby Twyford CofE High School. One resident, Toby Young, has gone further and set up his own free school. There have been no reports of trouble in Acton, but it’s a pretty safe bet that many those battling police and shattering windows in Ealing Broadway had travelled in from more deprived parts of the borough. The current BBC2 programme Town, presented by Nicholas Crane, illustrates very clearly that pretty much everywhere has a community of “have nots”, often living in close proximity to the “haves”, and that it was ever thus. Ealing is no different, yet parts of the media seem to have derived a thrill from portraying it as a place composed entirely of “haves”, yet still visited violence, arson and looting. It may be greener than most boroughs, yet having over 100 parks and open spaces nearby is irrelevant if you rarely leave your own postcode.
Ours remains a strong and vibrant community. It was moving to see hundreds of members of the Sikh community turn out in force on the streets of Southall last night to defend not just Gurdwaras, but the local streets. Twitter was buzzing with the story of how the locals at the Red Lion pub, just a little further up the road from the torched cars and burning mini-market, fought off passing looters who sought to gain entrance. More clean-up volunteers than the Council knew what to do with turned up at 10.00am yesterday, armed with brooms and dustpans and wearing sturdy rubber gloves. Ealing has much to commend it, and there’s nowhere I’d rather live; but to glibly pigeon-hole us as “affluent and leafy ignores” some of the complexities which appear to lie behind this week’s wave of violence.