Stunted Aspirations in Coventry Cross

By Abdul Aleem

This project was conducted as part of UCL’s Citizen Social Science (CSS) project, looking at barriers that people living in the Olympic boroughs face in attaining the Good Life. As a social scientist in the project, I was tasked with looking at barriers that people in my own estate, Coventry Cross, face. This project changed over time, and eventually became a culmination of two projects that I had intended as separate projects.

The first of the two planned projects was to look at the role of the local football team, Bromley-by-Bow FC, and the role it plays in community cohesion, and which barriers it has helped address over the decades in which it has existed. My plan was to look at how barriers have changed over time, and how the football team specifically had contributed to breaking down those barriers. This was to be conducted via a focus group interview method.

The second of the planned projects was designed as a result of a discussion on a community WhatsApp group. Having asked what barriers may exist, a discussion arose from community members suggesting that barriers do not exist in the way that they did previously and that people not able to achieve much had not done so because they lacked ambition and were not making effort. This argument, both for and against, led me to wanting to conduct an interview to discuss this in more detail, asking: to what extent can someone achieve what they want to, if they work hard enough for it?

However, during both the focus group and the separate individual interview, many similar trends and themes started to appear, with the discussions starting to mirror each other. Speaking in detail, and unpacking people’s thoughts, it became clear that the two projects were to become one bigger project looking at the role of ‘aspirations’ that people living in Coventry Cross have, and that for decades there has been a tension between what people felt like they could achieve (i.e. their aspirations), the provisions that the local authority had/has provided to further this, and where the community has stepped in – over the decades – to fill this void for its fellow residents. The following is derived from my interviews.

What is the Good Life?

The Good Life is seen as a life in which one has access to opportunities to better themselves, be it through further education, training, or employment. A crucial part of this is to be able to access these opportunities without fear of poverty as a result of doing so – knowing that your ability to ‘provide for your family’ or your ability ‘to do what you love with the people you love’ is not hindered.

What barriers exist in attaining the Good Life?

Over the years, there have been many barriers, many of which have shifted and changed, whilst many have disappeared and new ones have appeared.

During my discussion I found that during the 1970s-1990s, the main issue was that of racism, the fear of which did not allow residents to regularly leave the confinements of the estate itself, which in turn affected the things they could do to make a better life for themselves. At that time, with residents

being either immigrants or first-generation Bangladeshi, a greater focus was on providing for one’s family financially, as a result of which, further education was deemed to be out of reach. This slowly improved from the 1970s through to the 1990s. From the 2000s to the modern day, the issues revolved largely around anti-social behaviour, drug addiction and dealing, crime, and the lure of ‘easy money’ through illegal means. Interestingly, my discussions also included discussions and predictions for the future, and it was suggested that barriers in the future will include matters more closely related to mental health issues.

During my research, there was a common theme found throughout the decades, and it was quite apparent from my discussions that despite barriers changing over the years, the single greatest barrier to people achieving the Good Life has been a lack of access to opportunities that may have helped further them, be it in employment, training, or further education. This is not only in not having access to opportunities, but also in not being directed or signposted to opportunities from experts, not being given sufficient advice at crucial points in their lives, not realising the importance of education or training, not having access to resources, a perceived bias – be it racial or religious (the vast majority of residents are Muslim and of Bangladeshi origin) – if they attempted to better themselves if they did so, and ultimately a risk of poverty if they even attempted to try anything different to that which they had already achieved. A common expression during my discussions was the idea that perhaps people in the estate that internalised and ‘conditioned’ themselves to think that ‘this is the best that they will get’, despite growing up literally seeing the wealth of Canary Wharf, ‘a stone’s throw away’.

Although my conversations suggest that barriers to the Good Life have ‘improved’ over the years, residents still have a starting point that is a ‘few steps back’ compared to other people, which in turn has continued the persistent trend of low aspirations over the years. Thus, ultimately my initial research which questioned ‘ambition’ was never a question of ambition, but rather of stunted aspirations. This can ultimately be exemplified by the fact that those who have fallen prey to the lure of ‘easy’ money through illegal means do in fact still appear to be doing well in their work, thus not lacking ambition at all.

The centre of the picture above shows the red-brick Coventry Cross estate in the late 2000s. The red-brick buildings were built in the 1950s. The foreground shows work underway for new developments (now already built and occupied), whilst the background shows Canary Wharf – visible from residents’ bedroom windows.

The red-brick building in the centre of the picture above, is pictured below as it looks today. Renovation of the estate was completed in 2012. Construction work in the area for new-builds is still ongoing as can be seen in the top-left corner of the picture.

A community takes action

As a resident of Coventry Cross, I know first-hand the great sense of community cohesion which exists amongst residents of the estate. A worrying trend from my research is seeing the role that the community has played over the past few decades in helping to fill the voids left from that discussed above, in order to allow residents to better themselves; providing provisions, organising educational courses, arranging recreational activities, even going as far as to providing employment and training opportunities – all of which residents feel should be provided by the local authority, with an overwhelming feeling that ‘there is only so much a community can do’. All of the projects are delivered under the now-formalised charity named Bromley-by-Bow Community Organisation (BBBCO), with its roots going back to the 1970s.

The following is a brief overview, as well as examples of some of the things which the community has delivered over the years to fill the aforementioned voids.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, during the height of racism and the National Front, youth from the Coventry Cross estate – being restricted to the confinement of the estate, and nearby areas – participated in a lot of football, taking part in a variety of football tournaments. Football allowed them an escape from day-to-day life, building a sense of community and camaraderie. For the wider

community, the local mosque was also founded, providing pastoral care and other faith-related provisions.

The various small football teams formalised into an 11-a-side team in 1999, joining a league, giving the estate something to rally behind. In 2002, the team won a local tournament, allowing them to be invited to a national tournament. By this time, with racism slowly decreasing, other issues became prevalent, such as access to drugs becoming commonplace, as well as the creation of gangs left as a result of no longer having to fight racist gangs – leading to Bangladeshi gangs fighting each other. The football team allowed people to come together, stopping people from ‘hanging around’ and becoming a platform to ‘stop anti-social behaviour’.

Over the next 10 years, as the sponsorship money as a result of the success of the football team increased, the team formed its umbrella organisation: Bromley-by-Bow Community Organisation (BBBCO), to try and come up with projects which may help residents not associated with or interested in football. Eventually, with strategic thinking, and a formal overhaul of the organisation, it became a registered charity in 2013. This catapulted it to a greater level, opening it up to funding and bidding, and between 2013-2019, 70% of its activities were non-football related.

Being completely community-led on a voluntary basis, BBBCO has successfully sought funding and delivered many projects over the years, even growing to help local schools and nearby estates outside of its originally intended remit of just the Coventry Cross estate. Starting with young people, BBBCO took part in research to see what interests they had, and successfully delivered residential trips, music workshops, community fun days, and volleyball tournaments. It also successfully launched a youth football team, taking teenagers abroad on a footballing trip, allowing them to board a plane for the first time, expanding their horizons on what they could potentially achieve in life.

Branching out from the youth, the organisation did some more research to see what other demographics could be helped, and delivered aerobics classes for women, fishing and fruit picking trips for the elderly along with luncheons, as well as funding local primary school projects – including breakfast clubs and the annual nativity plays.

Branching away from the local estate, the organisation has also helped formalise a football team in Bow – Bow FC – allowing it to bridge differences between the two communities, as well as delivering youth provisions there. In total, 600-700 people are now part of the BBBCO target audience.

Focusing on education and work, BBBCO has also delivered accredited training for people to get into work, such as FA training, and has empowered local people to help take charge and deliver some of its projects. One of these included delivering after-school tuition clubs during exam periods. This work experience, and many others, have been crucial for people in the estate to get into work, as without the experience they would have no prior working experience to show to employers.

All of this started as a result of a small football team, and community initiative, and has to an extent helped raise the aspirations and quality of life for residents of the estate for decades.

During my research, an important point that arose – other than the usefulness of provisions – is the role of role models in the estate in helping to shape and increase peoples’ aspirations. Although a lack of guidance and signposting to opportunities has been mentioned as a barrier, in many ways the community has also filled this void too. As barriers have improved and/or changed over time, each generation has had the previous generation to look up to, and see as an example of success and perseverance.

Below are some photos from events set up by BBBCO over the years. Picture left to right: a community fun day full of food, music, and games, a boys’ under-14 football club, and a girls’ arts club.

The future

My research pointed out that the community members involved in change feel like ‘there is only so much that they can do’, with the future looking bleak due to ‘cuts in youth provisions’ and related ‘funding’ – things that have been crucial for their delivery. Thus, ‘a lack of funds’ means BBBCO will ‘miss the engagement with young people’ leading to a regression of gains achieved in the past. There is also a sense that much of what they have been doing is actually the role of the council and local authority, although residents accept that it may well be better received if delivered by locals.

One of the key reasons behind the success of the community helping deliver change – other than its sense of cohesion – has been its ‘strategic thinking’ and ability to ‘adapt’ as a result of societal changes and the barriers that residents faced to attaining the Good Life over the years. As a result, the need to adapt is still recognised, and my conversations have suggested that due to the younger generations spending more time indoors, it will result in future barriers being different to the lure of drugs and related anti-social behaviour, to that much more related to mental health. The conversation discussed the idea of delivering workshops to train people in recognising these, but also in delivering workshops to address the technological gaps between generations – especially parents – to recognise the lives their children live, and becoming more attuned to their world.

Although much of what I have found out as a result of this research is based on anecdotal data and a small sample of people, as a resident I can resonate with everything said as being true to my lived reality. Furthermore, the sample selected were selected on account of their standing and experience in the community. Finally, all of that mentioned above also fall in line with previous findings of the London Prosperity Board. The combination of the 2015 and 2017 studies showed that ‘the Coventry Cross research site has a higher than average percentage of households reporting very low levels of monthly disposable income after taxes, housing costs, utility bills and debt repayments have been made’ whilst ‘a significantly higher percentage of people in the Coventry Cross research site have daily face-to-face contact with friends, neighbours or family members than the Greater London average, and are less likely to be lonely’.