New Addington: the benighted estate Tia Sharp called home

It was meant to be a 1930s 'garden estate' – today it is as deprived as many inner city communities

WHEN the Tia Sharp murder suspect, Stuart Hazell, 37, appeared before magistrates in south London yesterday, one headline spoke volumes about the community in which they both lived. It read: "Tia suspect will appear by video link to deter crowds." The article below the headline explained that the highly unusual decision had been taken "to avoid the danger that an angry crowd might gather" outside the magistrates' court.

Hazell and 12-year-old Tia, the grand-daughter of Hazell's partner, Christine Sharp, 46, lived on the estate of New Addington, an appendix to south London which reaches down into the Kent countryside. Despite its leafy surrounds, New Addington is an impoverished ghetto of 25,000 largely white people.

The risk that the authorities wished to avoid by keeping Hazell away from court was an unseemly and possibly violent demonstration by vigilante-minded local people.

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New Addington is one of the strangest places in London. It sits perched on the North Downs at the end of the Croydon tram network close to the pleasant and well-heeled village of Addington with its golf courses and Palace, a country club used for weddings and corporate functions. New Addington is a community of 25,000 people, many of them truly poor, as removed from the affluence on their doorstep as if it were a deprived inner city estate.

New Addington was begun in the 1930s, planned as a working class garden city, and completed in the 1960s. The planners' expectations for the people who moved there was well illustrated by the provision (or lack of it) of educational opportunities. The estate had no grammar school, but did have a farm to train labourers nicknamed 'Cowshit College' and attached to the community's then secondary modern school.

The many hard-working, law-abiding people who live in New Addington have to fight the prejudices that pull such areas down. To give a New Addington address when applying for a job is likely to mean that the application goes to the bottom of the pile. The reputation affects all aspects of life: credit, education, employment.

The strange horrors of the past two weeks will not have helped: the apparent murder (though this has yet to be established) of a popular 12-year-old girl; the tangled relationships in her family – an absent and departed father, a young grandmother living with the man suspected of the girl's killing; a (yet again) bungled police operation, which failed to find Tia's body in the loft of one of the small, badly constructed houses that comprise most of the estate.

The 'shrine' – and there is no other word for the huge accumulation of teddy bears, flowers and candles that grows by the hour outside the house where Tia's body was found – is evidence of local people's solidarity, but so also is the fear that hundreds might demonstrate outside the magistrates' court, attacking the van bringing the suspect to court.

I first visited New Addington at the height of the early 1980s boom. I spoke to people without qualifications, skills or motivation, many of whom had fallen foul of the law. They had disappeared into what one local educator described to me as a 'black hole'. Without characterising the whole community – and there is great sensitivity about the area's reputation – it would be true to say that New Addington has more than its fair share of the illiterate and the innumerate. Few of the young men I then interviewed had stable family backgrounds.

To be born in an area like New Addington is to be born as far away as possible from any sort of privilege. If David Cameron's analysis of 'broken Britain' has any validity, it applies to communities like this one. Normally, most of the country takes little notice: it is only when riots or a head-lined murder capture the national attention that the rest of us take note.

A few years ago, when I was writing an article about a homicide cop, I was called to New Addington where there had been a professional hit killing of a drug dealer recently released from prison. The victim's car tyres had been deflated, and when he came out to investigate, he was shot through the back of the head by a gunman who calmly walked away and (as far as I know) was never caught. This murder made no waves whatsoever, the implication being 'What does one expect in a low-life community?'

By contrast, Tia's death – highlighted by the community search for her when all the time her body was decomposing in her grandmother's loft – captured the national imagination, in part, one feels, because its awful circumstances stood in such contrast to the happy and triumphant Olympic Games taking place a few miles away across London. The good and the bad in contemporary British life could not have been more starkly underlined. Tia's suspected murder is as far from the Games feel-good factor as one could get.

Having got to know several people in New Addington, I feel desperately sorry for the community. The name of the benighted estate, already infamous in its own locality, will now be known far more widely for all the wrong reasons. If those who live there struggled previously to overcome the disadvantages of their address, it will now be a great deal harder.

We talk of the Olympic legacy, meaning sports fields and opportunities for (mainly fortunate) athletes: a fitting legacy for Tia Sharp would be a national resolution to tackle the ills that beset so many who normally live out-of-sight and out-of-mind in places like New Addington. Each murder is unique, but they often tell us something important about the communities in which they happen.

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Robert Chesshyre writes regularly on police culture and is a former US correspondent of The Observer. His books include ‘The Force: Inside the Police’ and 'When the Iron Lady Ruled Britain''.