Last month, England’s first residential unit for antisocial neighbours quietly opened for business on a Manchester council estate under a veil of secrecy. There was no publicity but Society Guardian has learned that the first family have now moved in. On the estate in Miles Platting, north Manchester, where the unit of five flats is housed, local residents have no idea that the unit is destined for “neighbours from hell”.

Part of the reason for such secrecy is the media. In the popular imagination, the unit has already become a cage for the dregs of society. When news of the scheme came out at a planning meeting in October, the front page headline of the Manchester Evening News screamed “The Sin Bin”, with a photograph of a block of flats apparently enclosed by high railings. The next day the Daily Star picked up the baton. “Neighbours from hell will be caged in a real-life ghetto of grief in a scheme to crack down on antisocial behaviour,” it warned.

The trouble is, there is no cage, and the only bars of any height around the unit are to protect the cars of staff and residents. Furthermore, the project is not compulsory and residents will be free to come and go as they like.

Labour councillor Basil Curley – the one person involved who will talk about the project – says several families withdrew after the negative publicity because “they feared that, rather than helping them, it would drag them further down”. Curley, who is executive member for housing, says that one of those families will soon be issued with an antisocial behaviour order (Asbo), and will probably be evicted.

The media hype and ensuing news blackout is overshadowing what could become one of the most positive and progressive initiatives of recent years.

Foundations – a partnership of the council, children’s charity NCH and the Irwell Valley housing association -will manage the unit, which has been refurbished at a cost of £500,000 to accommodate antisocial families from north Manchester who have failed to respond to previous attempts to change their behaviour. Some 35% of the 192 Asbos issued in Manchester were from this area of the city.

It is a voluntary scheme that is likely to be offered only to the most disruptive families, usually those at risk of eviction from either a council, housing association or private sector property.

They will be offered a choice: go to the family support unit or face court proceedings. If they opt for the unit, they will be expected to sign up to a strict code of behaviour: no coming back late at night drunk, no disturbing the neighbours. In short, they will have to turn over a new leaf.

To help them achieve this, specially trained NCH staff will be on hand 24 hours a day to support and supervise the families. Key duties for staff will be to make sure everyone gets up in the morning, that the children have breakfast and go to school on time, that they do their homework in the evening and do not wander the streets. It all sounds like simple stuff, but it is these basic tenets of family life that many vulnerable children cannot take for granted. When NCH staff, police, teachers and other agencies think the families are ready, they will return to the community to make payday loans guaranteed no fax a fresh start.

Irwell Valley won the contract to provide housing support at Foundations because of its record for taking action against antisocial behaviour. Tom Manion, the housing association’s chief executive, says: “It can take two years to evict a family by going through the courts, so we don’t go there if we can help it. Evicting is not the way forward. We have evicted some ‘serious’ people, but prevention and rehabilitation are better for the families and better financially. It costs between £5,000 and £7,000 to evict antisocial tenants, and in one case – not Irwell Valley’s – it cost a housing association £20,000.”

The scheme is based on the Dundee Families Project. Run by NCH Scotland it began in 1996 and immediately came under fire from the local media and nearby residents, who referred to it as Colditz. But it “weathered the storm”, in the words of project manager Gill Strachan, and was later endorsed by a two-year evaluation by academics at Glasgow University. Their report found that locals had been won round, partnerships between services such as the police, schools and social services strengthened, and, most crucial of all, the families themselves had “made progress”.

To date, the £300,000-a-year project has helped 160 families, including one that Strachan talks proudly of: they were in the unit for two years (six months is the minimum stay) and have now been back “in society” for 18 months with no complaints from neighbours. “When they first came to us they’d caused havoc, were on the child protection register, had a child involved in crime who’d been excluded from school, and had numerous evictions,” says Strachan. “So it can be very rewarding to see it work.”

Back in Manchester, the people of Miles Platting are divided about Foundations. One woman, who did not want to be named, voiced concerns about the effect the newcomers might have on local children. “Kids round here are polite and well behaved,” she said. “I really hope these problem families coming in won’t change that.”

Some doubt whether such “troublemakers” can be reformed, but Curley is convinced the scheme will improve the quality of life for people living on the area’s housing estates. “It’s only five families, but that could be five estates being disrupted,” he says. “Once you’ve taken that disruptive element out, it discourages other kids who might be on the periphery of causing trouble.”

Antisocial behaviour is a divisive issue. On the one hand, hardliners such as Frank Field MP argue that tough action is required to protect the long-suffering majority. On the other, crime reduction charity Nacro says that too much energy is wasted on enforcement when rehabilitation is more effective.

The Manchester scheme brings both camps together. Field describes the approach as “brilliant”, while Tim Bell, Nacro’s housing director, is almost as complimentary. “Local authorities have been quite slow in trying to replicate the Dundee project,” he says. “I wholeheartedly support what Manchester is doing.”

The government’s Antisocial Behaviour Unit describes the Dundee scheme as “impressive”, but a spokeswoman says there are no plans to roll out the model. “This is because there is no one single answer, and we want to showcase a range of ways of working with families,” she says.

It is, however, looking to fund a Bolton Families Project, with a residential unit in the planning stage.

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