‘Problem’ people, ‘problem’ places? New Labour and council estates
‘Problem’ people, ‘problem’ places? New Labour and council estates
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter focuses on the construction and representation of council estates as problem places in Great Britain. It describes the preoccupation of the urban-renewal agenda with social-housing estates and the reproduction of inequalities and misery of poverty. The chapter argues that council estates play a symbolically and ideologically important role as a signifier and marker of social problems and spatialised dysfunctionality. It explains that in New Labour's much-heralded urban renaissance, the council estate is often counterposed against the vision of a revitalised urban citizenship in which responsible and orderly communities are involved in the management of their neighbourhoods.
Over the last two decades the gap between these worst estates and the rest of the country has grown…. It shames us as a nation, it wastes lives and we all have to pay the costs of dependency and social division. (Blair, 1998, cited in SEU, 1998, p 1)
For some, those who from generation to generation, are brought up in workless households in poor estates, often poorly educated and frankly sometimes poorly parented, the rising tide has not helped them. (Blair, 2006c)
This chapter is concerned with the construction and representation of council estates as ‘problem places’. Council estates have long been represented as posing a ‘problem’, to the local state, for agencies engaged in the delivery of criminal justice, and for a diverse range of organisations involved in the management of welfare and welfare-‘dependent’ populations. In this chapter it is argued that these estates play a symbolically and ideologically important role as a ‘signifier’, a marker of social problems and spatialised ‘dysfunctionality’. In New Labour's much-heralded ‘urban renaissance’ the council estate is often counterposed against the vision of a revitalised urban citizenship, in which ‘responsible’ and ‘orderly’ communities are involved in the management of their neighbourhoods.
Before we proceed, however, some ‘disclaimers’ are perhaps required. The city has long been portrayed as a place of ‘social disorder’ and ‘social disorganisation’, perhaps exemplified by the work of the Chicago School of Sociology. Thus, there is no argument here that it is only ever the council estate that has been portrayed as a ‘problem’ locale. Nor is it claimed that the council estate is the only urban locale that figures (p.126) in contemporary representations of urban ‘disorder’ and decay, with the ‘inner city’ continuing to occupy a similar role in England, if much less so in Scotland. It is also acknowledged that ‘the council estate’ as a label encompasses a significant range of area ‘types’ and includes contrasting forms of housing development, with many of those deemed to be most problematic frequently located on the urban periphery (Hetherington, 2005). In those estates considered more attractive, there has been a marked increase in home ownership through Right to Buy since the early 1980s, together with small-scale transfers of stock to other social landlords. Further, across urban Britain, many estates have been the target of ‘initiatives’ to promote diversification of tenure in the pursuit of ‘balanced’, or ‘sustainable’ communities (see Raco, Chapter Three, this volume). The inclusion of such localities with shifting populations does not erode the potency of the label ‘council estate’.
In this chapter the term ‘council estate’ is used against the general fashion since the 1980s to refer to ‘social housing’, reflecting in considerable part that publicly provided rented housing is increasingly provided and governed by a range of agencies (today encapsulated by the term ‘registered social landlords’). However, while acknowledging the diversity of providers, the term ‘social housing’ is for us a misnomer in that historically much of state-provided housing (and indeed that provided by many of the large housing agencies today) has, if anything, been ‘anti-social’ in that the council estate represents relatively highly controlled ways of living, the most regulated of all housing tenures, reflecting wider discourses that the residents of these areas require management and direction.
However, that ‘the council estate’ is something of a catch-all label does not detract from the way in which this label operates as a powerful metaphor. Space and place play a significant role in discourses of poverty and social exclusion, urban disorder, and decline. Our main concern here is not to detail the existence of hardship, disadvantage, and the effects of structural inequality on working-class areas, not least because these have been extensively documented elsewhere and the existence of concentrated deprivation has been repeatedly confirmed by successive reports over many years. Instead, we are primarily interested in the specific ways in which such estates are problematised leading to particular policy prescriptions.
Representing ‘problem places’
It is not only in New Labour and official discourses that council estates feature as a prominent element in the construction of a new moral (p.127) framework. For example in film and television fiction (for example, The Bill, Trainspotting and Rita, Sue and Bob Too), council estates are frequently used to signify assorted forms of social disorganisation, crime, and disorder. First broadcast in 2003, one of Channel 4's most popular dramas has been Shameless, a story of a ‘dysfunctional’ family living in, of course, a council estate in inner Manchester where ‘different rules’ are played from ‘normal’ ‘mainstream’ society. In fairness Shameless does at least avoid portraying people as simply passive victims with albeit anarchic forms of ‘making do’, creative adaptations, and resistance prevalent.
Elsewhere, in popular travelogues (for example, Danziger's Britain by Danziger, 1996) and in journalistic exposés of ‘hidden’ Britain (for example, Davies’ Dark heart, 1997 and Wilson and Wylie's The dispossessed, 1992), the council estate figures prominently. Other journalists simply regurgitate the commonsense view of council estates that depicts them as “areas that have become morally, spiritually and emotionally disconnected from the rest of society” (Phillips, 1998). Toynbee has questioned key aspects of New Labour's social policy project, including the agenda for increasing resident involvement in community activities on ‘run-down’ estates:
Everything on the estate must improve to such a degree that three-quarters of the residents can report that they ‘feel involved’ in their local community and 85 per cent can say they are ‘satisfied with the area’. This target for community involvement struck me as an impertinence. 75 per cent of the people must feel involved with the community? How and why? It is strange that it is always the people with fewest resources, struggling the hardest against the odds, who are the ones who are expected to galvanise themselves into heroic acts of citizenship. Most people most of the time just wish the civil servants or the politician would get on with delivering the things they are paid to deliver. Since no one ever demands the residents of Mayfair get involved with their street lighting or pavements why should these people, whose difficult lives and lack of money make it harder? There is a curiously Victorian notion that ‘community’ activity is a good of its own, or at least that it is good for the poor on council estates. (Toynbee, 2003, p 130)
The contemporary policy and political preoccupation with social exclusion and disorder on council estates is also evident in debates (p.128) about working-class masculinity and the state of the ‘white working class’ in modern Britain (see Campbell, 1993; Collins, 2004), while in his now infamous account of the underclass in the 1980s, Murray is clearly preoccupied by the overwhelmingly white council estate (Murray, 1990). In all of these different forms of writing, place and identity are powerfully linked, the common themes being that council estates are locales of moral deficit.
In important respects there are enduring legacies from the past here. A browse through the literature on housing reveals that the ‘problem estate’ is probably the one with the most enduring appeal for ‘housing experts’, politicians, and academics alike. Damer (1989) has produced an exhaustive and compelling critique of the evolution of the ‘problem’ concept and its changing spatial focus as the term was continually redefined over the years. The first official identification of problem families or problem tenants was in a government report of 1930. This is what Damer refers to as the beginnings of the ‘state representation’ of problem estates and problem people. While acknowledging that poverty played a part in the development of the ‘problem’ tenant it was their ‘inability to cope’, ‘poor standard of hygiene’, and so on that was the core of the ‘problem’. After the Second World War the concept of the ‘problem family’ and that of the ‘problem tenant’ began to be reshaped. What were regarded as ‘pockets’ of ‘problem families’ in the 1940s began to multiply in the 1950s and 1960s to form a large proportion of problem estates. Damer refers to this as the social democratic representation of the ‘problem’. Basically these accounts emerged as post-war sociologists began to take an interest in the ‘decline of community’. Not surprisingly, the ‘communities in decline’ were working-class housing estates that provided sociologists with a rich source of empirical evidence about how ‘problem people’ led their lives and allowed them to distinguish between the ‘roughs’ and the ‘respectables’. The final representation that Damer refers to is the ‘filtering-down’ thesis that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s and influences current debates on ‘problem places’ with ‘anti-social tenants’ added to the lexicon of the discourses on ‘problematic areas’.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the council estate comes increasingly to be seen as a residual locale of spatialised social problems. Arguably more so in Scotland, by the early to mid-1980s it had already begun to replace the ‘inner city’ as the key spatial problem facing government and policy makers. By the time New Labour came to power in 1997, there was a ready-made stock of largely negative terms, imagery, and signifiers that were to find renewed vitality and generally uncritical usage in the early years of the 21st century.
(p.129) New Labour's ‘problem places’
The worst schemes that I have ever seen are vast sums of public money invested in a vain attempt to change the infrastructure of a neighbourhood without touching the people who live there. And, within 5 to 10 years, it is back to where it started from, without having changed the nature, the tradition, or the culture, the aspiration and expectation of the people who are there…. We are also faced with a small group of individuals who actually believe that they can play the system. I grew up on a deprived council estate and it is called being street-wise. (Blunkett, 1999, pp 4, 8)
As has been well documented (cf Imrie & Raco, 2003; Johnstone & Whitehead, 2004; and Part I of this volume) ‘community’ and ‘neighbourhood’ play a significant role in New Labour's world view. The neighbourhood has become a central organising principle in urban renewal strategies, sitting alongside the newly ‘rediscovered’ community across a wide spectrum of social policy developments. Whitehead (2004) argues that “neighbourhood is now being utilised as a moral framework through which urban problems in Britain are being identified, codified and addressed” (p 59) and that “certain codes of conduct and social responsibilities are now being constructed around neighbourhood spaces” (p 63). It is our argument that within this moral geography the council estate comes to play a major role as a symbolic marker of social disorganisation and disorder, in many ways similar to the imagery of the 19th-century slums.
In his first public speech as Prime Minister, in June 1997, Tony Blair chose the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark in London to outline key elements of New Labour's social policy. The choice of location was significant (as it was in his first speech on law and order in another council estate later the same month), providing a backdrop to a speech that proclaimed New Labour's goal of combating “fatalism, and not just poverty”, “about re-creating the bonds of civil society and community”, of “rejecting a rootless morality”, and of creating a “sense of fairness and a balance between rights and duties” (Blair, 1997). Importantly, Blair also mobilised ideas from ‘underclass’ discourses as he promised that New Labour would ensure that the poorest groups would no longer be the ‘forgotten people’:
Today there is a possibility of an alliance between the haves and the have nots. Comfortable Britain knows not just (p.130) its own forms of insecurity and difficulty following the recession and industrial restructuring. It also knows the price it pays for economic and social breakdown in the poorest parts of Britain. There is a case not just in moral terms but in enlightened self interest to act, to tackle what we all know exists — an underclass of people cut off from society's mainstream, without any sense of shared purpose. Just as there are no no-go areas for New Labour so there will be no no hope areas in New Labour's Britain. (Blair, 1997)
All too evident here are the legacies of the past concerning the ‘disreputable poor’, the underclass. Throughout the past century-and-a-half, there is a continuing thread in the portrayal of the poor and disadvantaged that seeks to divide them into two main groups: those whose poverty is largely due to factors outside their control, and another group whose behaviour, lifestyle, and/or culture contribute largely to their impoverished position. The fatalistic underclass identified by Blair are, in New Labour thinking, largely to be found, although by no means solely, in the ‘worst estates’ in Britain; in places ‘cut off’ from ‘mainstream’ society, or which are otherwise portrayed as a residual legacy of the past. This ‘dual city’ metaphor was apparent also in Glasgow's council estates in the 1980s and 1990s (Mooney & Danson, 1997; Mooney, 2004). Amid its ‘transformation’ from a decaying industrial centre into ‘post-industrial’ city, Glasgow's council estates, in particular the large ‘peripheral estates’ were, to borrow from Blair quoted above, ‘forgotten locales’. Echoing Engels's account of segregation in Manchester in the 1840s, some journalists have commented:
There is far less a deep North-South or regional wealth gap than the great social divide to be found within each area, everywhere rich and poor living in the same postal sectors. In every big city rich and poor live cheek by jowl, close together yet far apart, managing to be unaware of each other in their parallel space. (Toynbee, 2003, pp 18–19)
Although we might add that at times policy-making elites are only too aware of what they think exists in this ‘other world’!
The same sentiments are expressed in a different way in the launch report of the social exclusion Unit's national neighbourhood renewal programme — Bringing Britain together — in 1998:
(p.131) Over the last generation, this has become a more divided country. While most areas have benefited from rising living standards, the poorest neighbourhoods have tended to become more rundown, more prone to crime, and more cut off from the labour market. The national picture conceals pockets of intense deprivation where the problems of employment and crime are acute and hopelessly tangled up with poor health, housing and education. (SEU, 1998, para 1)
While there is some recognition of inequality and of social polarisation here (and in other government reports), we can again see the influence of underclass notions of an identifiable group and a type of place isolated from the ‘mainstream’. That there appears to be at least three discourses of social exclusion in the above quotation from the social exclusion Unit echoes Levitas's (2005) argument that New Labour employs three contrasting notions of social exclusion: a redistributive notion in which inequality is recognised; a social integrationist perspective in which participation in the labour market, community, and ‘civil society’ is given priority; and a moral underclass discourse that emphasises the behavioural mores of the poor. However, as Levitas (2005) and Watt and Jacobs (2000) among others have argued, there is no equal weighting for these discourses and arguably in the quotes from Blair and Blunkett provided elsewhere in this chapter, the moral underclass perspective is predominant, although heavily influenced by ideas of social integration/cohesion. This is evidenced by a language that works to contrast poor neighbourhoods and estates with ‘the rest of the country’, and which juxtaposes the behaviour of those living in such localities with ‘mainstream’ society. As Morrison has argued, there is a powerful language at work here that contrasts “us” with “them” (Morrison, 2003, p 144). There is all too frequent reference to high crime rates, drug misuse, teenage pregnancies, and worklessness, as if these are the prevailing moral and cultural characteristics of estate inhabitants.
It is perhaps not surprising that in relation to identifying the ‘worst’ estates or neighbourhoods, definition comes a poor second to the stereotyping language that prevails. In Bringing Britain together it is claimed that there are ‘several thousand’ poor estates in England alone, while at the launch of the social exclusion Unit itself in August 1997, Peter Mandelson outlined the task awaiting the Unit in addressing the five million people living in ‘workless homes’, three million of whom were to be found on 1,500 council estates: “This is about more than (p.132) poverty and unemployment. It is about being cut off from what the rest of us regard as normal life” (Haylett, 2001b, p 49). New Labour has claimed that council estate inhabitants were among the forgotten population during the 1980s and 1990s, although this neglects initiatives such as the Estate Action Programme in England and New Life for Urban Scotland. Arguably there has been a sea change under New Labour in that there is now at the highest policy-making levels recognition that addressing the ‘problems’ of (or with) council estates is a key objective. This is evidenced not only by the work of the social exclusion Unit in London, or of the Social Inclusion Partnerships and more recently the Community Planning Partnerships in Scotland (see Johnstone & McWilliams, 2005), but across a diverse range of social and economic policies and in relation to criminal justice.
We can identify a number of closely related but discrete elements in New Labour's policy approach to council estates which, taken together, provide a clear insight as to the dominant ways in which these estates are understood and conceived as ‘problem places’. We have already highlighted that council estates figure prominently in representations of social exclusion and act as a symbolic moral marker in the new urban renaissance. While we can detect in New Labour a view that economic growth in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s has largely ‘bypassed’ these areas, this coexists with other ideas that the inhabitants are, to some extent, also to blame for their situation. Bringing these groups and their locales ‘into’ the social and economic mainstream has become a key element of the urban renaissance. Such integration is organised around three dimensions by which New Labour approaches council estates: social capital and active communities; housing stock transfer and the responsible tenant; and crime and disorder. It is important to acknowledge that in New Labour's much-vaunted desire to develop joined-up thinking and joined-up policies, the different policy developments are interrelated in complex ways.
Social capital and ‘active communities’
Along with social inclusion and social cohesion, social capital forms an important element of New Labour's policies, a ‘Holy Trinity’ that underscores much of the urban policy discourse. The promotion of community ‘engagement’ and ‘partnership’ is an integral element of New Labour's commitment to neighbourhood regeneration. Set up by the Home Office in 1998, the Active Community Unit was given the task of developing new ways of promoting community self-help. Such policies are integral to New Labour's urban visions in which (p.133) active communities play a more important role in policy making and are themselves increasingly self-regulating (albeit in very prescribed ways). New Labour's urban renaissance, then, is underpinned by a social project in which active citizenship is seen as a vital component (see Holden & Iveson, 2003; Imrie & Raco, 2003).
As Raco has argued in an earlier chapter of this volume (see Chapter Three), New Labour sees the development of ‘stable’ communities as a key component in building a socially inclusive society. Here, socially acceptable forms of behaviour are the norm, with responsible citizens engaged in activities that ensure order. Locales with ‘cohesive’ communities are, in this discourse, clearly distinguished from ‘disorganised’ communities in which social disorder of varied forms flourish. In this we can detect the coming together of notions of community as understood by communitarians such as Etzioni as well as more recently mobilised notions of social capital (Etzioni, 1998). The re-activation of community under New Labour is in part a key component of a wider strategy of ‘civilising’ ‘disorganised’ communities (see Ward, 2003).
Reinforcing and underpinning their vision of active communities is New Labour's commitment to Putnam's thesis on social capital (Putnam, 2001). Under New Labour the discourse of social capital is becoming increasingly prevalent across the policy spectrum, but particularly in the development of area-based community ‘regeneration’ programmes and it is also central to New Labour's arguments about civic ‘renewal’. For Blair:
A key task for our second term is to develop greater coherence around our commitment to community, to grasp the opportunity of “civic renewal”. That means a commitment to making the state work better. But most of all, it means strengthening communities themselves.… Indeed the state can become part of the problem, by smothering the enthusiasm of citizens…. The residents’ association that started with enthusiasm but disbands at their inability to convince the authorities to act on their problems. The victims who stop reporting crime because they lose faith that it will lead to a conviction…. Responsive public services are part of the solution. But we also need to give power directly to citizens. That's why we are piloting neighbourhood management of estates, where the tenants and residents will commission their local public services…. As Robert Putnam argues elsewhere … communities that (p.134) are inter-connected are healthier communities. If we play football together, run parent-teacher associations together, sing in choirs or learn to paint together, we are less likely to want to cause harm to each other. Such inter-connected communities have lower crime, better education results, better care of the vulnerable. (Blair, 2002, pp 11–12, emphasis added)
For New Labour the attractiveness of the notion of social capital is in part that it can address social exclusion. Civic regeneration and the development of social capital are seen as integral to neighbourhood regeneration and to the redevelopment of disadvantaged communities, notably including council estates. Here the argument is that the socially excluded have either ‘fallen out’ from ‘civil society’ (or are likely to do so) and fail to participate, especially with paid work, but also volunteering, running clubs, and so on. Once again we can detect enduring legacies of underclass discourses: that the poor and disadvantaged fail to engage with those activities that are assumed to be ‘normal’. However, what is neglected in this discourse is that such ‘normal’ activities are, in fact, not prevalent in high-income and middle-class localities where a high-quality environment is all too evident.
Given the limited space of this chapter, we cannot examine the wide-ranging critiques that have been made of the ideology of social capital (see Fine, 2001; Law & Mooney, 2006a, 2006b), save to note some of the ways in which these can be used for the stigmatisation of particular places. In other words, the mobilisation of normative notions of social capital enables the construction of particular locales as ‘problem’ places. Communities, groups, and individuals are poor and disadvantaged not simply because they suffer from low income, but because they have not networked enough and have insufficient social capital. This is implicit in the quote from Blair provided above. What we have here is a rather sheltered middle-class outlook, a world of neighbourliness, painting classes, neighbourhood-watch schemes, a world in which the community is responsible and self-policing. Communities that fail to match this ideal model (which for the social exclusion Unit and the National Neighbourhood Renewal Programme, includes the bulk of Britain's remaining council estates), require ‘bringing into line’ — notwithstanding the fact that such a notion of normalcy is in itself a stark idealisation. In the place of a concern with material inequalities and with unequal power relations, we see an emphasis on individual and/or community dysfunction. We have all been here many times before: social capital allows for the re-entry of some of the worst kinds of stigmatising discourses. The significance of this is that it reminds us of (p.135) the need to critically engage with the notion of social exclusion as much as with social capital (and social cohesion). In much of New Labour social policy, social exclusion is perceived as self- exclusion, notably in relation to worklessness, that is, an unwillingness to work.
That the populations of housing estates, particularly the poorest ones, are all too often depicted as lacking in social capital, that is, officially sanctioned social capital, leads to a view of such locales as characterised by social disorganisation and social disorder. However, while seeking to avoid a simple relativism that suggests that one person's disorder is another person's order, it is crucial that such language is problematised and the underlying ideologies exposed for critical scrutiny (see Mooney, 1999). That council estates and poor working-class communities may be characterised by particular cultures and identities does not mean that these are dysfunctional or pathological, as is frequently implied by some of the more populist and New Labour interpretations of social capital. As has been argued elsewhere, day-to-day survival strategies, epitomised in Shameless, often conflict with publicly sanctioned ways of living (see Smith & Macnicol, 2001; Watt, 2003). Thus, following Haylett, we would argue that there is an urgent need to recognise “that working-class identities and cultures exist in positive ways in spite of economic inequality — ways of well being that may have their problems (like another class position) but that are not always and ever problematic” (Haylett, 2003, pp 56–7).
Housing stock transfer and the responsible tenant
In the field of ‘social’ housing, New Labour has promised to bring about a ‘transformation’ in the lives of tenants. The key vehicle for achieving this is housing stock transfer, involving the wholesale restructuring of social housing and the new provision of ‘new’ forms of housing management. Throughout all of this the key notion is ‘choice’. As Flint (2003) has argued, “Social housing is … rationalised as a point of distinction between autonomous individuals, capable of self-government, and dependent individuals to be targeted for government intervention” (p 615).
For New Labour the restructuring of council housing is not simply a ‘bricks and mortar’ strategy, but is founded on the promotion of choice and the transformation of the council tenant from state-dependent to active consumer of rented housing (Marsh, 2004). Here the tenant is no longer conceived of as a passive consumer of their housing, but someone who can exercise judgement in the choice of landlord or provider, and who will want a greater say in the management of their housing. Passive (p.136) dependency will be replaced by an ‘empowered’ consumer who will seek to engage with others in the management of their community. As Flint (2003) has again pointed out, owner-occupiers are accorded an identity as rational and responsible consumers of housing. Not so the council tenant.
It is important to acknowledge in the policy towards the ‘selling off’ of what remains of Britain's publicly rented housing stock an implicit attempt to ‘get rid’ of council tenants also. Through housing stock transfer, the attempt to reconstruct tenants as morally responsible citizens who have responsibility for their own housing (to a very limited degree), the ‘welfare’ or ‘estate culture’ that is said to permeate many working-class areas, will be eroded.
The council estate as a locale of crime and disorder
In a recent reworking of classic social disorganisation theory, especially in its Chicago School variant, under New Labour those estates and localities that have high rates of crime are said to suffer from low community involvement and a lack of social cohesion. Again here we can see notions of social capital coming into focus. As Atkinson and Flint (2004) have argued, however, there are other mechanisms of social ordering at play in such localities, through more informal processes. The image of the council estate as a crime-‘ridden’ place ‘from hell’ has long featured strongly in media representations of crime and disorder. For Haylett (2003) negative working-class subjects are very much central to the mainstream cultural imagination about a wide range of social ‘problems’, from teenage pregnancy and youth offending through to nuisance neighbours and drug misuse. Throughout such imagining the council estate is often not far from view. ‘Estate cultures’ are violent, disordered, criminal, and/or dysfunctional and deviant in other ways. Arguably council tenants and council estates probably represent some of the most regulated forms of housing tenure and this has reached unparalleled heights under New Labour. There is a marked toughness to New Labour that is sometimes obscured by the deployment of ‘softer’ language of social inclusion, social justice, and social capital (Jones & Novak, 1999). Alongside new benefit systems, backed up by the threat of more punitive sanctions, there are a host of curfews, orders, and social regulations that govern parenting, youth offending, young people in general, and unemployed people. And then there are Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs). While there are different objectives here, alongside the increasing responsibilisation, there is a marked shift towards criminalisation.
(p.137) Such developments lend weight to Jones and Novak's (1999) arguments of a ‘retooling’ of the state under the Conservatives and New Labour, with a harsher, tougher ethos permeating criminal justice and welfare delivery. Central to the ‘rescue packages’ for council estates is a harsh law-and-order message, reinforced by tough sanctions. Here we have the hyper-regulation of particular groups of people in particular places where criminal justice and other agencies work to ‘seize back’ estates and neighbourhoods from those considered to be disorderly. The localisation of many criminal justice policies reaches a different level in many working-class estates from ‘normal’ areas. For example, there are the well-publicised youth curfews in three council estates in Hamilton (see www.scotland.gov.uk). Introduced in 1998, these imposed a ‘dawn to dusk’ curfew on under-16s with the police given new powers to force young people from the streets. Curfews have since been implemented elsewhere, reinforced by the use of ASBOs. ‘Anti-social’ families and neighbours will now face local authorities equipped with more draconian powers of eviction. There is little clearer manifestation of New Labour's world view that such estates are beyond ‘normal’ or ‘conventional’ society.
Throughout the history of place stigmatisation, similar themes constantly reappear in different periods: ‘disorder’, ‘disorganisation’, ‘pathological’, and so on. There are dominant recurring themes in the story of the representation of council estates. While over time the language used might have become somewhat more sophisticated (although not always), underlying ideologies and hostility to working-class ways of living are all too present. As Haylett (2001b, 2003) among others, has argued, working-class cultures are seen as highly problematic by politicians and policy makers, cultures that are seen to find their strongest expression in council estates. The language used by officialdom betrays the class contempt that often underpins policy making, with ‘sink estates’, ‘dump estates’, ‘estate cultures’, and ‘benefit/ welfare dependency’ figuring prominently in the policy-making frame today. Here echoes of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor of the 19th century and, more recently, of the underclass continue to find a prominent place in policy prescription designed to ‘deal with’ such areas. While class is rarely named, there is a language of class at work here, underpinning the wide range of moral euphemisms that are frequently deployed in official discourses (see Skeggs, 2005).
As is well documented, New Labour's preoccupation with social (p.138) exclusion and social disorder has a strong geographical referent. This is not to deny that problems of social exclusion and crime rates are geographically uneven in their intensity. However, the policy response to this geography has a strong moral undercurrent, one that is all too often imbued by stigmatising discourses. However, in other ways council estates have been rediscovered under New Labour, this time as offering a yet to be fully utilised reservoir of labour. In the new wisdom that preaches of links between ‘competitiveness and cohesion’ there is a new-found role for the council estate in the pursuit of global economic competitiveness (see Boddy & Parkinson, 2004).
While there are echoes again here of ‘dual city’ thinking, a key shift is that council estates are now to be ‘included’ in the drive for economic growth, thus their portrayal as a residual locale of anti-competitiveness is being tackled head-on by New Labour. In addition, that there have been widespread processes of urban renewal and ‘regeneration’ should not go unremarked. Many of the ‘problem’ areas or ‘bad spots’ of the 1970s and 1980s are no longer visible, either having been demolished (a marked feature of the recent urban landscape across Britain), or having been subjected to processes of ‘gentrification’. In other places once regarded as ‘dangerous places’, we can now find locales of retail consumption and leisure, often staffed by the descendants of residents of the estates who once lived there but who now provide a significant source of often very cheap labour.
Council estates may no longer be the abandoned or forgotten places that they were under the Conservatives, but they remain ‘foreign’ places, an internal ‘exotic’ amid the wider urban renaissance. The early 1920s aside, for much of their history, council housing has been viewed as second-class housing and, in recent decades, increasingly as the tenure of last resort; a tenure requiring significant ‘makeover’ and ‘rebranding’ (see IPPR, 2000). Arguably, through housing stock transfer and other policies targeted at council estates, this is what New Labour aims to bring about. However, in the process, despite claims of ‘partnership’, of greater tenant involvement and of self-management, existing problems of social marginalisation are reproduced and indeed intensified in some respects through the utilisation of a stigmatising language. In part the new managerialism that pervades policies for these estates/schemes together with stock transfer are fuelled partly by suggestions that the council estate tenant is also a victim of past housing municipalisation and state interventions, as well as of the behaviour of the ‘minority’ of ‘yobs’, ‘neds’, ‘problem families’, and assorted others from various ‘hells’ of one kind or another.
It has been widely argued that under New Labour social policy (p.139) has become increasingly ‘criminalised’. While it is important to draw attention to the ways in which a wide range of social policies have become imbued with criminal justice objectives, nonetheless it is crucial that we recognise that social policy has long been intertwined with practices of social control. Further, in suggesting that social policy has been criminalised, we must not project a view of social policy ‘itself’ as being intrinsically ‘pure’ or ‘soft’ but also as coercive. In this respect we need only point again to the activities of generations of housing managers and the housing management systems that worked to regulate tenants in estates across the country. Together with other policies directed at council estates, there is a generalised process of social engineering taking place in New Labour's Britain. Council estates were largely the product of past (and now classed as failed) processes of such engineering. In the contemporary phase there is a much more explicit, and much tougher, policy that is effectively about managing those deemed ‘dangerous’ classes in their disorderly places which, for New Labour, predominantly refers to Britain's council estates, the 4,000 estates whose current state for Blair “shames us as a nation” (Schaefer, 1998). This is about establishing a new moral order in which the ‘good community’ and orderly behaviour can be generated. Urban policies today have more focus on crime and community safety, in the process working to bring marginalised people and places into the economic mainstream. To return to an earlier theme of this chapter, in the emerging hyper-regulation of council estates and their residents we can see New Labour's multiple strategies of respectabilisation, responsibilisation, and re-moralisation at work. Such estates have to be made ‘sustainable’, where order, respect, and responsibility prevail.
The inhabitants of council estates continue to generate the capacity for informal mechanisms of social control. Ways of governing from the bottom up often conflict with top-down policy-making strategies that work to prescribe particular patterns of living while regulating others. As Burney (2005) has argued, a key feature of government rhetoric is that poor communities “have somehow lost the ability to deal with bad behaviour” (p 56). However, such sentiments also influence other areas of government thinking that such communities show little ability to cope with ‘modern’ life. Against this view we argue that the potential for resistance, for fighting against the odds, and for developing coping strategies, is all too evident in poor communities and in council estates across Britain. However, it is this very capacity that continues to reinforce the problematisation of council estates as ‘problem’ places.