We're skint: How Channel 4 doc compares to life on Telford's Brookside estate

It’s the show that divided the nation. Some thought it was an accurate portrayal of Broken Britain, highlighting the chavs and chav-nots of the benefits culture.

Jobseeker Matthew Childe with his son Jayden live on the Brookside estate in Telford.
Jobseeker Matthew Childe with his son Jayden live on the Brookside estate in Telford.

Others thought it was exploitative, voyeuristic and a deliberate attempt to demonise the poorest members of society.

Whatever your opinion, there’s no denying Channel 4’s Skint got people talking.

Some of the country’s most pressing and sensitive social issues are suddenly being debated in living rooms, pubs, offices and schools up and down the country.

Whenever the show aired, Twitter went into meltdown – especially when a £2,500 3D home cinema system was unveiled in the home of jobless Dean Bell and his family of nine. Nothing, it seems, gets people’s blood boiling more than the proverbial benefits big telly.

Skint, charting the highs and lows of life on Scunthorpe’s Westcliff estate, had it all: drink, drugs, violence, prostitution, families trying to make things better, families falling apart.

There were people striving to nab an elusive job, like cage fighter Shane who got his life back on track and ended up driving a JCB in a warehouse, and poor souls slowly slipping further and further down the ladder, such as drug addict Kieron, kicked out of his home and reduced to eating a stolen water melon on a park bench. Whatever angle you came at it from, it often made for depressing viewing.

But what do people who live on a troubled estate like Westcliff make of it all?

Was it a fair enough portrayal or a programme spun to within an inch of its life to lure in the all-important viewers?

Telford’s Brookside estate comes with a lot of baggage. Its residents are the first to admit it’s got a bad reputation and that life is not always easy.

A total of 7.2 per cent of the working age population are claiming Jobseekers Allowance, higher than the borough average of 4.4 per cent, and there were 161 reported crimes within one mile of Brookside and Stirchley in April, including 80 incidents of anti-social behaviour, 19 violent crimes and 18 reports of criminal damage or arson.

But there is also a lot to be proud of and look forward to. The estate is undergoing a huge £6 million regeneration, with new housing, shops and public spaces on the way, and members of the community are working hard to make things better.

Pritpal Sandhu, aged 32, has run The Codfather chip shop in Brookside Local Centre for six years. His chippy sits alongside a newsagent, beauty salon and The Wrekin Housing Trust office in the centre of the estate.

He watched Skint and has mixed feelings.

“It shows the difference in society – how some people have to live their lives and others don’t,” says Pritpal, who lives in Wolverhampton.

“Skint showed that some people have the sole intention of going out to rob – and that pushes prices up for everybody, the working class, the middle class, the upper class.

“But these people stealing have drug habits, I think if drugs were legalised the country would be able to make good money from that and there wouldn’t be as many problems.

“That was definitely something I could identify with life round here – there is trouble here and, often, drugs are behind it. I have been broken into several times, people are drunk in my shop and there are drug users who come wandering in.

“But there is good and bad in everyone and there is good and bad everywhere. There are lots of people down here working to make the community better. We have the Big Local community group and there is a community cafe with volunteers who include people off the estate to run it. We’re working closer with the estate to make it better. I bet there’s things like that going on on the Skint estate but they just didn’t show it.”

Sitting on the wall outside the shopping precinct is father-of-four David Gould, who has lived on nearby Dodmoor Range for 16 years. He has been hit hard by the bedroom tax and is fearing an impending eviction.

“It’s all well and good watching Skint and judging but if you haven’t got that money, life is tough. But I do understand where some of the people with negative views are coming from. Some of the people on there, and here, are bang out of order,” he says.

“The problem I have is that I have a four-bedroom property but my daughters and sons have grown up and left and, because of this bedroom tax, I cannot afford the house anymore.

“They say I owe £301.90 in rent and if I don’t pay that, they’ll take me to court. I can’t afford a solicitor or court costs and I could be evicted. I get £208 every two weeks through Income Support and Carer’s Allowance. Anyone would agree that’s not very much. I’m hardly living a life of luxury. In fact, life is not very good at all.

“I have a disabled daughter to look after. It’s just me, my daughter and my wife. I would move to a smaller house, I’m not too proud to do that, but I can’t afford to do that on my own. I’ve come to speak to the housing officers to try and sort it out.

“My daughter goes to a day centre and I have to spend £25 on that as well – all my money goes on my daughter and making sure she is safe and well.

“People here and on Skint are just trying to get by. I am just about hanging on at the minute but I cannot afford another property, I can’t afford to go out, I can’t afford any new clothes, everything goes on my daughter. I have no money, no hope. People should remember that.”

A short walk from the shops is the children’s playground, home to a scene that couldn’t be more of a Skint stereotype if it tried: three lads, all dressed in hoodies and one with a Staffie, drinking cans of lager at the fence, music blaring from their mobile phone.

The lads all watched Skint and, for one in particular, it hit home.

Dave Binnie, aka Stokey Dave, said: “I watched it. That fat guy [Dean], he reminds me of my old man, always telling the kids to do something even though he’s not doing anything. He’s a hypocrite. There’s a lot of blokes like that.”

The 26-year-old father-of-two added: “I’m from Stoke and I came here a few months ago. I’ve just got out of prison – I took a charge for my mate for stabbing. I came here to start a new life, away from Stoke, with my family here.

“You do get lots of s*** round here but it’s not as bad as Stoke, back there they have six security guards on the Job Centre door and people hang around outside shops and that. Round here’s boring compared to that.

“I’m on JSA. I’d like to work but it’s difficult at the moment. I’d really like to work for myself in the future.

“I think the people that watch Skint and have a go are stuck in their little routine and don’t know what it’s like on an estate but then I saw the blokes on the telly shouting at the little kids and that p***** me off - even I don’t do that.

“Round here, if you look for trouble, you’ll find it. If you don’t, you’ll be alright. But, if wait round here for another hour, you’ll get about 20 people hanging around that bush getting p*****.”

One of the most hotly-debated topics surrounding the show was that of parenting. People were outraged at scenes such as a father screaming the F-word at his young daughter and another leaving his son in the park after too many drinks. There were also stories of mums battling to get their children back from social services, unruly teens running rings around their parents and young families having to go to food banks to stock their empty cupboards.

Matthew Childe, aged 24, is bringing his two sons, aged four and one, up on the Brookside estate. He has just been to pick his eldest boy, Jayden, up from nursery.

“I don’t think it’s that bad round here, it just needs tidying up a bit and those flats need to go,” he explains. “Some of those flats are unlivable and that doesn’t help things.

“I lived here as a child and I came back about seven years ago after living in Malinslee.

“Brookside’s got a bad reputation but as long as you don’t go round causing trouble, you’ll be fine. You have to show people respect.

“I wouldn’t let my children run around here though on their own. It’s not that safe.

“I know people were watching Skint and saying ‘Why don’t they all just get a job?’ but it’s not that easy. I’ve applied for so many. I had a nasty motorbike crash two years ago but six months after that I was back looking for a job. I came off the sick to get JSA. I would love a job.

“In an ideal world, I’d have a career in engineering but I’d take anything – I’d be a cleaner, I’d scrub the floors, whatever. I want to work. That’s what I think people don’t understand. They think people on estates like these are lazy and that’s just not true.

“We are skint though.”

By Elizabeth Joyce