Council housing estates: guilty or not guilty?

The Guardian has made a brave attempt at recording and analysing the riots and their
aftermath.  But looking at their ‘reality check’ feature following Iain Duncan-Smith’s claim that ‘housing estates’ were one of the major factors that contributed to the rioting, I think they are still some way from hitting the nail on the head.

As always, IDS says things that seem to make sense until you look at them properly.  Personally, I find his concern for the poor totally false.  His prescriptions always seem to
involve taking money away from them, as if they can be punished into behaving more as he would like.

The problem with his latest utterance is that he switches between ‘areas blighted by welfare dependency’, ‘underprivileged communities’, ‘housing estates’ and ‘grim council estates’ as if they were one and the same thing.  He warns about social segregation and ghettoisation when most commentators feel his policies will drive us faster in that direction.  And he sees the problem of unemployment as being entirely the failure of ‘benefit dependent’ people to get jobs rather than a statistical deficit of jobs in the market, again made much worse by his policies.

Even so the Guardian took up his theme that housing estates were to blame for the riots, concluding that “It appears there is emerging evidence to support Duncan Smith’s claim that there are links between estates, the people that live on them and this summer’s violence.”

Like IDS, the Guardian’s analysis also switches between deprived areas, estates and council estates without differentiating between them.  Deprivation in some places is increasingly a feature of the private rented sector, and we are often reminded that half the poor are home owners.  They don’t consider the differences between housing association and council estates – does a council estate that has been transferred to a housing association suddenly become less prone to riots?

Nor do they look at the composition of a modern council estate. Especially in London, where most of their analysis is done, ‘council estates’ are not mono-tenure anymore, they are broken up with a large number of flats sold and now occupied by home owners, a burgeoning number of private tenants, temporary accommodation and, in some places, large numbers of students.  Most housing managers will say that a disproportionate number of the problems they have to deal with arise from the more transient residents who are not secure tenants or established lessees.  All of these points should be considered before generalisations are thrown about.

The Guardian’s analysis shows clearly enough that ‘deprivation was certainly the
unifying factor’.  They quote Alex Singleton at Liverpool University (one of those who analysed the data):  “These limited data and analysis seem to suggest that those people who have been appearing on riot-related charges (typically young males) live in some of the most deprived areas of our largest cities, and in neighbourhoods where the conditions are getting worse rather than better. Rioting is deplorable, however, if events such as this are to be mitigated in the future, the prevailing conditions and constraints effecting people living in areas must form part of the discussion. A “broken society” happens somewhere, and geography matters.”

Now I don’t disagree with that.  But the Guardian then moves the point along with some case stories, particularly about Pembury in Hackney.  Now, Pembury is not a council
estate, but from some reports it sounds like world war 3 broke out there.  The Times says the average family income on Pembury is £9,000 compared to £46,000 in neighbouring mortgaged street properties, so it is a prime candidate.  But there has been a lot of dispute about what actually happened there, most notably by the Chief Executive of the Peabody Trust that runs it.  Many people have complained about the mischaracterisation
of their areas in the media.

A mapping exercise done at University College London (my old Geog Dept I assume) discovered that in north London 84% of verified incidents occurred within a five minute walk of both an established town centre and a large post-war housing estate.  Now there’s a shock, I’m not sure there are many parts of Hackney and Tottenham where this doesn’t apply.  In south London it was 96%.  UCL identify a slightly different factor: built form rather than tenure: “it’s not an argument that social housing is connected with crime, but that a certain type of post-war large housing estate is.” 

So does it matter if it isn’t clear if we’re talking about people or places, and which tenure they’re in?  Well I think it does.  Iain Duncan Smith is a highly political man who arrives at highly political conclusions.  His think tank friends want to create the opinion within the public that not only is there a link between living in council housing, sloth, and criminality but there is a causal correlation (ie the tenure causes these defects).  Then they can promote free market solutions and argue that collective provision should be removed.  We are experiencing a skirmish in their propaganda war.

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2 Responses to Council housing estates: guilty or not guilty?

  1. Pingback: Retribution for the riots: some common sense at last | Red Brick

  2. Monimbo says:

    I also thought the Guardian piece was rather chaotic and bunged together various bits of evidence without considering it properly. The piece asked for comments to be sent in, and I wrote to point out that Pembury is a Peabody etstae and also to link to Steve Howlett’s comments on the immediate aftermath and how residents quickly worked with Peabody staff to clean the place up. This wasn’t reported in the piece, however.

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