That sinking feeling*

It would be easy to condemn this weeks’ Policy Exchange report on ‘turning round’ Britain’s council estates. But it is important to separate out the spin and editorialising from the evidence in the report. Published by a think tank with a less obvious agenda, Gavin Knight’s report might have had something useful to say about reinventing the art of community development.

Regrettably the report trades in the usual stereotypes. It starts with a rhetorical flourish: ‘The riots of August 2011 were an eruption from the violent underbelly of our inner cities.’ Then comes the statistical mirage: Step 1: 40% of those before the Courts were on a DWP benefit. Step 2: ‘young rioters were more likely to be from deprived areas’. Step 3: ‘many’ deprived people live on social housing estates. Step 4: Many social housing estates are ‘sink estates’. Step 5: the biggest leap of all – the riots of 2011 started on a sink estate, Broadwater Farm in Tottenham (I think they may be 3 decades out on that one). Step 6: Conclusion: The problem we must tackle is council sink estates.

Most of the 2011 rioting in Tottenham, and in other areas, happened in shopping streets, and in mixed areas. There is no evidence of any link to tenure. The excellent London Citizen’s Tottenham inquiry identifies reasons for the riots, based on the evidence of hundreds of local people, and none have anything to do specifically with tenure or Broadwater Farm. Indeed, in their report the only mention of the Farm is to record the many contributions to the Inquiry made by residents  in support of wider improvements in Tottenham, in youth services, in shopping, in police relations, and so on. Regeneration is supported but the emphasis is more on the High Street and on business start-ups, there is no mention of estates separate from the rest of the area.

The thought process leading from the riots to the description of social housing estates as ‘a national embarrassment’ is the usual lazy prejudice and stereotyping. It leads to newspapers like the Express talking about ‘ghettoes’ and the direct association of a tenure with poor education, single parents, child neglect, domestic violence, low levels of employment and gang warfare. Undoubtedly these are real problems on social housing estates but it is a parody and a caricature to pretend that these problems are not just as severe elsewhere and in other tenures.

Behind the spin and the usual Policy Exchange right-wing editorialising, I found some good points in the report and some good evidence to support a return to the community development approach, something of a lost profession. This approach is just as relevant in areas with a predominance of private renting or low income home ownership as anywhere else.

Knight is right to emphasise the importance of crime and police-community relations, although he ignores the point that the cuts are leading to a major reduction in the highly effective neighbourhood policing approach that brought about many improvements. He is right to see the need to support and back local leaders, especially local residents. He is right to argue for ‘interventions’ (eg to promote work and training) to take place in the heart of the area and not at service points well away from the area. He is right to say that communities must themselves be the agents of change. He is right to say that existing resources could be better deployed, for example by agencies working more collaboratively, although he fails to address the implications of the cuts to many services (eg youth) that are taking place now. And he is very right to emphasise the importance of supporting women, not only to improve their personal circumstances but also because they usually turn out to be the community leaders that are needed.

So some interesting stuff here, and in the case studies (although I don’t know the local circumstances to be able to comment on the veracity of the text). But when we turn to the recommendations, the spin and political ideology of Policy Exchange take over again. Council estates undoubtedly need investment, and some need transformation, but the recommendations are once again about ‘turning round’ ‘sink estates’ by setting a ‘National Estate Recovery Board’ working closely with, yes you guessed it, the ‘Troubled Families Team’.

Take out the stereotyping and demonization of council housing, and the highly political focus on one tenure, and I suspect there will be significant agreement around the author’s broad conclusion:

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the case studies in this report is how effective a series of very small-scale, very simple, very inexpensive interventions proved to be. By being locally-minded, determined and creative, individuals were able to catalyse huge change. Leaking, crumbling, gang-ravaged estates are a powerful symbol of inequality in Britain. All political parties need to offer positive, innovative and cost-effective solutions to the multiple, complex problems residents face every day. It is time to go into these estates and help these communities to rebuild themselves.

* ‘That Sinking Feeling’ was a 1980 Bill Forsyth film about 4 unemployed Glasgow teenagers who steal stainless steel sinks from a warehouse and sell them on. The term ‘sink estate’ has no known derivation despite its common media usage.

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