We visit ‘Benefits Street’ in Winson Green, Birmingham - nine years after the Channel 4 documentary

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Birmingham’s James Turner Street in Winson Green hit the headlines in 2014 when it became the subject of Channel 4 documentary ‘Benefits Street’ - here’s a look at life there today

‘James Turner Street in Birmingham is not your average street. There are 99 houses, 13 nationalities and most of the residents are claiming benefits. But times are getting tougher, they’re having to learn to get by on less and rely on each other more.’

That was the opening line to Channel 4’s hit TV documentary Benefits Street which catapulted the Winson Green road into the spotlight and made stars of its residents.

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From Fungi battling drug addiction and missing out on seeing his son to White Dee mothering pretty much every one, Benefits Street provided a reminder to most that life can be tough.

But what’s changed in the nine years since the TV crews packed up? “Not much,” said one resident walking back home on James Turner Street. “It’s still the same, people struggling to get by. There’s a lot more families here now. It’s not all bad, you know. We’re good.”

James Turner Street, Winson Green, BirminghamJames Turner Street, Winson Green, Birmingham
James Turner Street, Winson Green, Birmingham | LDRS

What does ‘Benefits Street’ look like in 2023?

The street itself is very small. At the top end there is Foundry School, now Oasis Academy Foundry, while on the corner, there’s the infamous red brick walls of HMP Birmingham with some of the most dangerous criminals locked inside. However, in stark contrast, there’s a well-kept allotment and small field at the top of James Turner Street. It belongs to the primary school and is used by the local community to grow fruit and veg.

A short walk past the field and the school lies the row of terraced houses that become TV-famous. There was no sign of Fungi, Smoggy or White or Black Dee, though. However, there were the familiar signs of fly-tipped rubbish which is now all too commonplace in inner-city areas across Birmingham. A couple of fridge-freezers and an old sofa were just left in the street while a couple of stray kittens were rummaging through black bin bags. There were a lot of cats prowling around as well.

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It had not long gone past 3pm and parents were coming back from the school run. A few of the residents heading back home didn’t want to speak, while a few explained how they didn’t speak English. The community here in Winson Green is largely made up of Eastern European, Black African, Asian and Pakistani and Bengali.

James Turner Street, Winson Green, BirminghamJames Turner Street, Winson Green, Birmingham
James Turner Street, Winson Green, Birmingham | LDRS

I approached a group of men who were waiting for a friend. “What do you want?” was the pretty blunt greeting I received. “We don’t speak English.” OK, I thought while, further up the the road, there was a piece of paper with the words ‘DONT SIT ON OUR DOOR STEP!’ in block capitals taped to a front window.

A few minutes later and a Jamaican guy, harmlessly riding his bike, was close to being knocked over. Wearing an umbrella hat, shades and camouflage cargo bottoms, he jumped off his bike and yelled back at the car. “What the f*** are you doing, bumbaclart?” The driver in the car stopped for a second before speeding off down Beeton Road. The cyclist then turned to me and said: “He nearly killed me, fam.”

Is James Turner Street really that different to other parts of Birmingham?

But amid the rubbish and the sounds of nearby trains passing the tracks, James Turner Street is just like any other street in a deprived area. People haven’t got a lot while the few that were willing to stop and speak weren’t too fussed about the crisis at the council, either. “It’s just life, isn’t it?” a mum told me as she held her toddler in her arms.

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There is one shining light, though, and that’s the school at the top of the road. Oasis Academy Foundry, as it’s now known, was rated outstanding by Ofsted this week and, with it, became one of the best schools in the UK. It’s some story in itself that a school on ‘Benefits Street’ is one of the very best when it comes to education.

The community allotment on James Turner Street, which is owned by Oasis Academy FoundryThe community allotment on James Turner Street, which is owned by Oasis Academy Foundry
The community allotment on James Turner Street, which is owned by Oasis Academy Foundry | LDRS

Dedicated headteacher Asima Ravat has been the driving force behind the Oasis Academy Foundry’s incredible turnaround, with the school in special measures when she took over ten years ago. “It’s now become a school of choice, people want to send their children here,” she said with immense pride.

“Children get to come to a fantastic school that’s in the heart of a community with exceptional education. As soon as the children walk in, it’s like they’re in this bubble of utopia where they’re just taken care of. When I first came in, it’s been that driving mantra of children come first. Always.”

Children can ‘dream bigger’

Asima’s deputy Camron Mills, who grew up in Handsworth, put it even better, and explained how children can ‘dream bigger’ than James Turner Street. “We recognise that for our children… if all you see is this around us. We all know the prison’s there. That’s the reality of the context we’re in but, actually, there is life beyond all of this. You can dream bigger than this area where we are right now.”

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And that was the big takeaway from my hour-or-so in Winson Green – there’s a pretty incredible school that’s nurturing future generations who are all being told to ‘dream big’. James Turner Street hasn’t changed much – but perhaps the kids who go to school here will lead successful lives in the future.

James Turner Street, Winson Green, BirminghamJames Turner Street, Winson Green, Birmingham
James Turner Street, Winson Green, Birmingham | LDRS

Commenting on the success of the local primary school and how the area surrounding James Turner Street has changed since that Benefits Street documentary, local councillor Sybil Spence said: “First of all, the school deserves all the praise in the world. The work the staff have put in has been incredible. They deserve it. We know this area is deprived but people here care and the parents care and everyone wants to help the children. It’s wonderful.

“As for Benefits Street, the programme was unfair. We had people on it that didn’t even live on James Turner Street but turned up for the cameras. Residents here were all marred with the same brush and people complained to me about it. But it’s all gone now and we’ve moved on.”

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