Life in the middle of a nightmare

It may be an area of Sunderland but parts of the Ford estate resemble a war zone. The echo visited the arson-hit wasteland.

Even the cross on the church is crooked. This is Ford Ford Estate and it feels like Beirut.

No one knows it more than the 38 remaining residents who live in a demolition wasteland of boarded-up houses, and who live with the daily fear of empty houses being torched.

For those like Hilda Richardson, single mother of six sons, whose house is joined onto a boarded-up house, the nightmare of it going up in flames – and hers with it – is terrifying.

"Beirut hasn't got a look-in where Ford Estate is concerned," says Hilda, who has lived in Forest Road for 12 years. She is at her wits' end.

The estate is a sprawling part of Sunderland which is divided into two areas – High Ford, which borders Pennywell, and Low Ford, to the east, which borders Pallion.

Many of the houses were built in the 1930s and early 1940s but, although large parts remain pleasant areas to live, over the years some areas have deriorated badly and have become notorious.

Haunted by the view from her three-bedroom home, Hilda is desperate to be re-housed.

"I haven't been offered anything in three and a half years," she said. "I am petrified they will set fire to the house next door. All my friends have gone. Down this end there's only two of us in the square."

The night before we met, the house across the road from Hilda's was set alight, and another the next night.

She says: "Last night was horrendous. The fire engines were here for hours. Me and my six lads are just sick. It's really started to depress me.

"It's got to me now having to keep the lads in the house.

"There's nowhere to take them – the park has been burnt down. I daren't let them out to play because it's not safe.

"I've bought them a Wii console to keep them entertained. We've been burgled twice. The last time was in September last year and they took all the bairns' things. It's just horrendous."

Hilda's youngest son, Blaine, eight, had laser heart surgery in January at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle, to correct an erratic heart beat.

She says: "They think they have corrected it but now he gets panic attacks and the fires make his heart pound as if it's going to bulge right out of his chest.

"He has to see a consultant at Sunderland Royal next week to see if it's anything to do with his heart."

Hilda looks haunted as she keeps a silent vigil at her front room window.

"I'm frightened. I sit with my blinds open all night until I go to bed. Even when the fires start you don't see anybody about. It's like they've set the fire and then they have gone. But once the fire engines come you see them all back."

The last house to be set ablaze has been demolished but the one before that is still standing.

With bulldozers at the back and lorries at the front, Hilda is fed up of it all. Her six sons – Mark, 16, Karl 13, Ben 11, Declan 10, Loughlin, nine and Blane, sleep three to a bedroom with Hilda having her own room.

She says: "I'm desperate to get out and four-bedroom houses are like gold.

"I have pleaded with them and I've told them I would take a three-bedroom anywhere round about here if it had a dining room I could make into a bedroom.

"The housing woman said I was third on the list to get one and I haven't been offered anything. I went after three but I've heard nothing."

* gentoo are in the process of offering Hilda a three-bedroom house with a dining room after I told them of her plight.

'I feel as if I am overseeing the death of this community'

There's an old song which tells the tale of a pub with no beer.

But here at the Church of the Good Shepherd, on the Ford Estate, it's more a case of a church with no congregation.

Numbers have fallen dramatically as families have moved out and faithful worshippers are now down to around two dozen.

It's a blow to church army sister Anne Williams, who came in July 2004 as community missioner.

Now she despairs that she hasn't got a community to mission to.

And she's told the bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, and the Bishop of Jarrow, Mark Bryant, that she's getting paid for a job she can't fully do.

Her post at the church is a part- time one as Sister Anne's other role is mission outreach in the Durham diocese.

This is her first living and she wonders if her contract will be renewed next year given her flock have moved out.

Sister Anne says: "They paid me to build up a new community and I was told the houses would be demolished by the time I got here.

"I was here to help these new people become a community but I have have had to watch it demolished round me. The whole community has been decimated, pulled apart.

"If it wasn't for my other work that I do I would be so depressed. It's 90 per cent different to what I thought and expected to do in the church.

"I feel as if I am constantly overseeing the death of this community. That's what I've been here for and I can't offer people hope for the future because I can't say what it is.

"I feel frustrated. The only thing I know is that the church is staying and the house is staying."

The vicarage stands in total isolation since the neighbouring houses were demolished and the area cleared.

Sister Anne, 62, is literally in the dark when she steps outside her front foor. Street lights have been smashed and as she picks her way through broken glass and debris, she points to the vicarage roof, stripped of its lead.

She says: "It's a scary place to walk round in the dark and last night when I came back the light across the way was broken.

"Things like that and the fire engines get to you. In some ways I feel a little bit safer because I don't have a house attached to me."

However disquieting it is at the moment, Sister Anne is determined to stay although she misses having neighbours.

She says: "They used to look out for me as well even though I was a stranger coming in."

Inside the church, water has come in because of missing roof tiles and the red velvet cloth covering the pool table never comes off now since the five to 11-year-olds who came here to play have moved on.

There is a Sunday morning service, another on a Tuesday afternoon and on Wednesday a handful of over-60s meet and the same at the Thursday coffee morning.

Sister Anne says: "I feel so useless and I said that to one pensioner and she said 'Do you know, sister, it's enough for me to know you are there.' My role is to be here. There's a great service to be had living here and the power of prayer is amazing. I am here for a purpose."

Big plans for area plagued with troubles

If all goes to plan, life in the High Ford Estate should improve dramatically over the coming years.

Since June of last year 265 houses have been demolished, and now only 38 residents remain.

The area's master plan is due to be submitted by April 2009, for work to start on site in April 2011.

There will be a mix of three and four- bedroom houses to buy and for rent. The total planned investment is 39.4million.

Ian Porter, managing director of Gentoo Sunderland, said: "The Ford Estate area has had challenging issues for a number of years.

"These included poor-quality 1930s properties made up of only two and three- bedroom houses. Turnover on the estate was running at 22 per cent, which is around three times the average for most estates in the city.

"In addition there was no demand from families and high rates of anti-social behaviour. Even before the ultimate decision was taken to renew the estate, we had more than 70 empty properties.

"As with any major renewal programme nationally, this massive undertaking of the renewal of over 450 properties cannot happen over night.

"We are acting as quickly as possible to get the area cleared, we have demolition contractors on site and have moved over 330 households with less than 50 remaining.

"The new development will be replanned with modern efficient homes meeting the needs of the city.

"We appreciate this is a difficult period for residents and thank them for their co-operation and support.

"I am absolutely certain the new development will be something to be proud of. We are going as fast as we can. It will be fantastic when it is finished."