Micky Bimble says he doesn’t recognise the Page Hall he keeps reading about of late.
He’s lived here, in Bolsover Road, with his teenage daughter for eight years now. He shops in the high street and socialises with his neighbours, while she’s in the local school system.
He loves the area. So, he was surprised to hear David Blunkett inform the world recently that the neighbourhood is on the brink of Britain’s worst urban disorder for more than a decade.
The Brightside and Hillsborough MP claimed tensions between the area’s expanding Roma population and the settled Pakistani and white British communities could result in conflict. His comments focused on how dozens of young Roma were gathering in the streets each evening.
“We have got to change the behaviour,” he said. “Because there’s going to be an explosion otherwise.”
The interview was picked up by national newspapers which ran with it as far as sensationalism would allow – and then somewhat further. Several reported – inaccurately according to police – that crime is increasing. One claimed, with no corroborating evidence, that a chip shop owner had been offered a baby for sale. Another led with the quote from a resident: “when it goes off, it will be like an atom bomb here”. The quote was unattributed. And all the while many Page Hall residents – the silent majority, perhaps – looked on.
“It was like: is this really our neighbourhood they’re talking about?” says Micky, a performing arts professional. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s not perfect. It’s a poor area and you get all the problems deprivation leads to, and there can be cultural misunderstandings, but riots and explosions? I don’t think so.
“The Roma have different customs but they’re not violent. You talk about litter and crime? We get both but we’ve had both for years. If anything it was worse when I moved in.”
Tonight, The Star has taken to the streets of Page Hall, and all does indeed seems relatively quiet.
It’s 9.30pm – half an hour after a police curfew which bans under-16s from gathering. A few still hang around but when two female officers move them on, they walk away, seemingly bored.
Residents say it was worse in summer when hundreds would meet in the high street. But tonight Page Hall seems a long way from a community on the brink of civil breakdown.
“Riots?” spits Gulnaz Hussain, manager at the Pakistani Advice Centre Association in Page Hall Road. “It makes me mad. If there were going to be riots they’d have happened by now. The people saying these things are just causing trouble. I speak to elders from all communities and no-one wants these problems. You solve cultural misunderstandings by working through them.”
Certainly, the centre – set up in 1989, and funded through council and police grants – is working to help.
There are 17 staff here and six are Roma, along with six Pakistanis and five white British. A Roma Development And Education Group running every Monday is attracting dozens of newcomers keen to learn English. Slovakian women in particular have been making the most of health sessions – “They want to improve their figure,” notes Gulnaz.
A neighbourhood watch group has also been set up where people can report any problems. “The trouble with these newspaper articles,” says cohesion worker Julie Blacker, “is that the reporters came here, spent time with us, listened to what we were doing and wrote articles and more or less ignored what we’d said. I suppose their editors didn’t want a story that said community relations doing OK.”
Not everyone, of course, thinks they are doing OK.
David Blunkett’s comments didn’t come from thin air. Several residents and business owners are worried. Among the drinkers in Firth Park Working Men’s Club in Idsworth Road, there is concern. It is estimated 850 Roma families have arrived in the last five years. Sheffield City Council says it is aware of 1,500 Roma children in the city. And in the new year, under new immigration laws, that could increase again.
“I have had several issues raised,” says ward councillor Ibrar Hussain. “People have been intimidated, they’re worried about noise, there are concerns over littering.
“I would urge tolerance. These people are here and they’re staying. We must educate in what is acceptable in our society. But the message is getting through.”
The most widely quoted complainant has been Colin Barton, owner of Halal Fisheries, also in Page Hall Road.
“They’re here day and night,” he says. “Hanging about, urinating in the street, going in the bookies, selling sex. They’ve brought a crimewave.”
“The one word I hear most from them is ‘sorry’,” says the 54-year-old who is new to the area having moved from Attercliffe. “If you approach them and tell them to clear off, they’re backing away ‘sorry, sorry, sorry’. That’s all the English a lot of them know..”
A customer looks on.
“I hear it’s bad,” says that customer Ali Mohammed, a Yemeni whose mum lives nearby. “They need to integrate.”
Back in Bolsover Street, we knock on Jan Klepar’s door. He’s a half Roma Slovakian from Bratislava who has lived in South Yorkshire for eight years. Despite being wary of journalists he invites us in.
He’s still perfecting his English but his family came here, like many Slovakians, in search of a better life. He understands the concerns of those who have grown up in the area but he believes Page Hall could be a better place for the new arrivals.
“Sometimes my country people are noisy,” admits the 38-year-old Gunstones Bakery worker. “I go out. I say to them they must be quiet and they are.
“This is just the culture – it is social thing. But with time they learn English, they have better life.”
Micky agrees. Hes says he’s old enough to have seen all this before.
“I had a Pakistani saying to me the other day: ‘These Roma, come here, not integrating, they’re a disgrace’,” he recalls. “I said to him ‘I remember people saying the same about Pakistani families 30 years ago. I didn’t listen to them then and I’m not listening to you now’.”