‘Littering, loitering, prostitution and urinating in public – it needs to be sorted out or we will sort it out’

Page Hall Road.
Page Hall Road.

Last month, a near riot outside Fir Vale School in Sheffield thrust the troubled neighbourhood of Page Hall back into the national spotlight.

News of a fight in the school canteen spread like wildfire in the close knit community, escalating to the point where a number of parents attempted to scale the school gates, some reportedly armed with weapons.

Litter on Owler Lane.

Litter on Owler Lane.

The school has since claimed the incident was ‘minor’ but the reaction to it was anything but, with dozens of police officers and cars, dog units, paramedics and even the police helicopter deployed to the scene.

To make matters worse, a neighbourhood meeting held shortly afterwards to discuss the issues with the police and council descended into bitterness and acrimony, as residents blamed the police, the council, and even each other for the continuing problems.

So what is going on in Page Hall?

The area itself is little more than a few streets in north-east Sheffield, sandwiched in between Fir Vale, Grimesthorpe and Firth Park.

Efforts have been made to clean up the area.

Efforts have been made to clean up the area.

The ethnic mix of the Page Hall has changed out of all recognition in the last 50 years, but over the last few years worrying divisions have developed.

The problems are most evident in the kind of language some use to describe their new neighbours.

They are like animals.

They are not human.

Litter on Idsworth Road.

Litter on Idsworth Road.

They ruin houses.

They leave rubbish all over the street.

They push you out of the way waiting for the bus.

The ‘them’ in question are the Slovakian Roma community, who came to the area in large numbers in the first decade of the twenty first century.

The Common Ground community garden.

The Common Ground community garden.

The ‘us’ is largely but not entirely a Pakistani Muslim population with roots in the area that go back over half a century.

Tensions between the different communities of the area have been in evidence for some time, with former Sheffield MP and Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett warning the area was at ‘boiling point’ in 2013.

Police are routinely deployed to clear the streets late at night amid reports of dozens of Slovakian Roma men stood around drinking, talking loudly and fighting.

Litter is a common complaint, as is drug taking and prostitution - and, in the past, there have been even darker allegations of Slovakian Roma women offering babies for sale.

Taxi driver, Tanveer Jan, of Idsworth Road, was one of those who attended that fractious first meeting in the immediate aftermath of the school riot.

He said any attempt to see what went on as simply an issue for the school misses the point entirely.

The Common Ground community garden.

The Common Ground community garden.

He said: “It is a problem in the community that has rubbed off into the school. What happened in the school came from the community.”

“It is not just one little issue it is a whole lot of issues. It is the prostitution, the littering, the loitering, the urination in public areas.

“It is all these things that are building up and the community is saying we have had enough. It needs to be sorted out or we will sort it out.”

Tanveer is at pains to point out he doesn’t see all Roma as trouble-makers, and that tensions exist within and between many of the area’s communities.

“This is not a Muslim and Slovakian racial problem, this is a community problem,” he says.

“There are English people who are just as angry and there is a Roma family across the road who are absolutely bang on.

“Another Roma group hire the working men’s club over the road every Sunday for a Pentecostal church service.”

“Our parents and grandparents struggled when they came here too but we didn’t see the same things then.

“Obey the law, look after your neighbour and support British values. That is all we ask, we don’t care where you come from.”

Over the last four weeks, the heightened tensions caused by the school incident have calmed somewhat, and on Tuesday the area was tidy, clean and quiet, as children played in the streets in the warm Autumn sunshine.

A new police sergeant has met with community leaders to discuss the possibility of new dispersal powers, and the council are looking to extend the selective licensing system which limits the numbers of tenants landlords can cram into each property.

But such measures can only go so far.

In order for the area to genuinely move forward, better engagement with the Slovakian Roma population is essential.

Gulnaz Hussain runs the Fir Vale Community Hub - formerly the Pakistan Advice and Community Centre - at the bottom of Page Hall Road.

As well as litter enforcement teams which can fine people on the spot, they also run community days, arts projects and neighborhood litter picks.

A recently set up community garden behind the building - fittingly called ‘Common Ground’ - has helped provide a shared space where it is hoped the diverse communities of the area can come together.

Gulnaz says the Roma community do ‘keep themselves to themselves’ and have ‘their own way of life’, but is adamant that she has seen more hostility about problem issues than open strife between communities.

She said: “The Roma community came here with a lack of education around litter but they do have a social responsibility to where they live now.

“I really hope they are allowed the time to reflect on these issues with a view to moving forward.”

An important part of Gulnaz’s work over the last year and a half has been the Sheffield Roma Network, which offers support with cultural issues, job search and English language training.

It is run by 21-year-old Tomas Tancos, who is from the Roma community himself and settled in the area permanently in 2004, attending Firth Park High School and now living on nearby Whiteways Road with his partner and infant daughter.

He said the reason his people came to Sheffield in the first place was to escape the lack of opportunity in Slovakia for an ethnic group that is routinely persecuted and discriminated against.

However, when they arrived in England, the differences in environment between Slovakia and Sheffield have been difficult to adapt to for many Roma people.

“Where they are from there is not one single opportunity there. No jobs, no education,” said Tomas.

“But they were used to living in villages, people were not used to this lifestyle. The people who came in 2006 and 2007 didn’t have a clue what this system was.

“The Sheffield Roma Network is about teaching them how to live in this country.”

Yesterday, Tomas hosted a public meeting for the Roma community on litter, noise, anti-social behaviour and the possibility of creating a Roma forum in the area.

It is hoped that the ‘Roma to Roma’ format of the meeting will have more success than lecturing the community from outside - but only time will tell.

Like when she changed the name of the centre three years ago, Gulnaz has come up against resistance from some in the Pakistani community for the work she does with the Roma people, but says this will not stop her.

“The Roma who come here trust us now but maybe some in the rest of the community are against us because of that,” she said.

“But I love this community and I love everyone who lives in it. We care about this area and that is why we are here.”

“Here today we have people from the Pakistani, Polish, white British, Yemeni and Roma communities - if we can make it work here we can make it work out there.”

Tomas Tancos.

Tomas Tancos.