Hazel Leys and Kingswood: ‘We can't keep being self sufficient'

In the second part of our week-long feature looking at the county’s left behind neighbourhoods, we report from the Hazel Leys and Kingswood area of Corby

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By Sarah Ward

Annie Driver has lived on the Hazel Leys estate in Corby for more than 20 years. She describes it as ‘an old fashioned neighbourhood’ where people know their neighbours and look out for each other and where mothers walk their babies to get them to sleep in the early evening, in the way that many of their Scottish mothers and grandmothers would have done.

But despite the sense of community, Annie says that Hazel Leys is struggling and needs much more time and investment from public bodies.

One of the county’s five officially recognised left behind communities, it is among the most deprived in England and the lack of community facilities and infrastructure have put it in the overlooked and forgotten about category.

Beyond the connectivity of neighbours, there appears to be little social fabric pulling residents together. The pub closed many years ago and is now a derelict site, long mooted plans to turn it into new homes are no longer talked of. The community centre, which is run by the local authority, is often closed during the day. In the evenings there are a few commercial activities, such as dance classes, but some may be out of financial reach for parents who are already struggling to make ends meet.

The area does not have any dedicated youth workers, they were cut a decade ago by the county council - and the two play areas, Jubilee Park and Bonnington Walk are noticeably tired and in need of refurbishment. The Jubilee Park Play Area bears marks of offensive graffiti, its basketball hoop no longer has a net and the floor is peppered with cigarette stubs.

There are no tots groups where young parents can get together and make friendships.

We spoke to Sharon*, a council tenant who is bringing up her lockdown baby, now 18 months old.

“There are no mum’s groups round here’, she says. “We need more activities for young parents to take their kids to so the children can meet each other”.

Sharon says she tried to sign up to some other groups in other parts of the town but many are booked up.

And the lack of social activity is not just felt by the young.

85-year-old Marie Kelly has lived on the estate for fifty years since she moved to the town from Dublin. We spoke to her at a bus stop, where she was waiting to catch a bus to the KK social club, a venue two miles away on Occupation Road, where she could meet up with her friends for a chat and a game of bingo.

Marie says after an initial period of adjustment (she wasn’t keen on everyone calling her ‘Hen’, the Scottish form of endearment) she’s enjoyed her life on the Hazel Leys estate, getting to know her neighbours and making life-long friendships.

“It’s not where you live, it’s how you live your life,” she says.

Crime is a big issue in the area. This summer the community was thrown into shock and grief when 16-year old Rayon Pennycock was killed during a teenage brawl. Police then descended on the area and spoke of visible patrols, but Annie Driver, who witnessed some of the aftermath of events on that evening, says that her door and others she spoke to were not knocked and that the presence felt cosmetic and did not last long.

“The police need to be more visible,” she says. “I can’t remember the last time I saw a police officer walking down the road and speaking to people.”

“We are so used to the smell of cannabis, it’s unusual to smell a normal cigarette,” she jokes.

And it’s not just serious crime that is plaguing the area. Speeding cars is a huge issue.

Kingswood and Hazel Leys - are neighbouring housing estates, connected by Gainsborough Road, which runs along the Northern side of the Kingswood estate and right through the centre of Hazel Leys. But while the Kingswood part of Gainsborough Road is populated by speed bumps, which slows and reduces traffic, the Hazel Leys section has none.

Annie has asked for traffic calming measures but has been told, that as the road is a route for the emergency services it cannot have any. So instead many use it as a race track.

As we talk on the road outside her house we are passed by several people illegally driving electric scooters. One man drives past on a large quad bike. Annie says he’ll come past again shortly with his child, whom he has collected from school, on the back. She also refers to the ever present Adidas gangs (Annie’s term) - teens who move drugs around the town on bikes and scooters.

There are currently just seven police community support officers across the whole of Corby and the same number of neighbourhood police officers. That’s less than one to cover each of the eight housing estates that make up Corby - the equivalent to roughly one neighbourhood police officer to every 8,750 residents.

“The majority of people who live here are hard working people,” says Annie. “Every single person in this road talks to each other. But we have had to be self sufficient, people are doing it for themselves as they have no other option. 

“We need a baby bank - people are struggling. People can’t afford to clothe their kids - working people.

“Things are getting worse and worse. Enough is enough. Nothing ever gets done and so then apathy comes in.

“We are in desperate need of a community leader.’

Hazel Leys and Kingswood does benefit from the national lottery funded Big Local initiative, a community led programme which provides grants. One such event was the free Field Day Festival this summer, there have also been poetry events and there are plans for some new skate parks.

But Annie thinks much more investment is needed by other agencies.

Over on neighbouring Kingswood there is a more tangible social fabric and more facilities.

The neighbourhood centre has a children’s centre - run by the nationally acclaimed Pen Green.

Next door is the community centre which is open five days a week, includes a brightly furnished community cafe and has now become a food bank, helping about 20 families in the estate each week. As the neighbourhood centre is devolved and taken over from the local authority, there is a strong community network involved. 

The food bank - which is supported by residents and nearby supermarket Morrisons - was set up by centre manager Lynn Johnson when the first pandemic hit.

During the pandemic Lynn realised there was a need for outreach support and Kingswood Community Support was formed. Linking in with the local church and made up of about ten community spirited residents, funds have also recently been secured from the police and crime commissioner to pay for two youth workers. The centre has also started a weekly youth club - paid for by fundraising from the primary school on the estate - and a new outdoor all-weather table tennis centre has been installed.

But Lynn, who has worked on the estate for more than a decade, says that funding needs to be more sustainable in order to make a long term difference.

“The area draws you in and makes you want to work here,” she says. “We are committed to the estate and for me and the others who work or volunteer here it is not just a nine to five job.

“But we need sustainable funding and long term commitments. We literally finish one funding bid and then have to start looking for another.”

Ten years ago part of the estate was knocked down and new social housing erected in its place. But a large part of the estate, which was built in the 1960s, remains neglected and run down. 

The local authority recently turned some garages into small flats to add to housing stock, but one has already had a large window shattered.

Speaking to people on the streets of the estate it appears that teen violence and gangs of kids hanging around on street corners, often smoking cannabis and causing trouble is a huge concern. 

Earlier this month a 17-year-old was stabbed on Ripley Walk and had to be airlifted to hospital. It’s a crime that everyone is keenly aware of.

Long-time resident Rhoda Whitwell says a teenage group recently set up camp in a shed in the empty council property close to her home and used it to take drugs and as a go-between during school hours. It has now been closed down and the group has moved on elsewhere but the anti-social problem remains.

“The past year has just been horrendous in terms of trouble with kids. It’s not older teenagers - it’s the younger ones, from 13 onwards and they are having a bad influence on the younger ones. There are very young kids running around the streets.

“The elderly couple next to me are too frightened to come out of the back gate of their house because of the kids hanging around.

“I don’t walk anywhere at night after a certain time and my husband walks with his key between his knuckles and now won’t walk through the estate.

“There is not enough for them to do. There are a lot of families who haven’t got the money to pay for clubs, especially after the last 18 months we’ve just had.

“It just feels like it is never ending.”

Grandmother of ten Sharon Martell agrees.

She tells the story of coming to the aid of an Eastern European couple who had been attacked by a young teen gang last summer. The man had been attacked by the group - who Sharon estimates to be around as young as 13 - and hit with a plank of wood. The gang - which included girls - was laughing when she got there - and only left when she took the phone off the woman to give details to the police. 

“There is not much here for them and many have parents who don’t keep an eye on them. It’s affecting the whole community - it’s not easy for people round here, or the other kids - as they do bully them and some kids are scared to go out.

“I used to walk across the estate at two or three in the morning to my brother’s house if he was having a party. But there is no way I would do that now.”

We will be holding a community meeting in Hazel Leys in the coming weeks. Details to come shortly.

Tomorrow’s report will bring you resident’s views from the Talavera area of Northampton. If you missed yesterday’s report about Northampton’s Kings Heath, you can read it here

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