‘Symbols of Urban Malaise’: Past and Present

Simon Briercliffe is a doctoral researcher in the Department of History at the University of Birmingham working on Carribee Island in Wolverhamption during the 19th century. He blogs at uptheossroad.wordpress.com and you can follow him on Twitter @sbriercliffe.


David Cameron last week set out his new plans to wage “an all-out assault on poverty and disadvantage” by investing £140 million into revitalising 100 post-war housing estates in the UK. These, he holds, are totemic of the social problems facing our cities: “those built just after the war” in particular “actually designed [crime] in,” they are “self-governing and divorced from the mainstream”; “decades of neglect have led to gangs, ghettos and anti-social behaviour” and “spatial analysis” has shown that 2011 rioters “came overwhelmingly from these post-war estates.”

He was supported in his analysis by Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Greg Clarke who was interested in the “huge potential” for revival that the “worst estates” offer , and Lord Heseltine who will be tasked with chairing the advisory panel that will lead the way on the programme. As Heseltine said on ITV news, it’s his dream to get rid of these “slums.

Simon Image One

Stapleford Block, Broadwater Farm, by Steve Cadman. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

A collective sigh was heard across the nation from historians, geographers, sociologists and many more who’ve been here before. The pathologising of housing has a long and inglorious history extending back way before the post-war estates that so trouble the PM. It hardly needs stating that Cameron’s plans have been very carefully presented – like many Conservative policies these appeal to the common-sense, the instinctive, that which we feel probably is true. After all, ‘people like us’ wouldn’t go onto these housing estates after dark.

Whether Cameron really realises it or whether he’s comfortable in his own assumptions, these generalisations don’t often stand up to scrutiny. Having lived in or around Tottenham for many years, I know one of the prime candidates for demolition – the infamous Broadwater Farm estate – pretty well. Built in the early 1970s (and thus very different from those actually built immediately post-war), in the 1980s it was most famous for its race riots. Memos from 1985 surfaced just after Christmas from Oliver Letwin MP who concluded that “the root of social malaise is not poor housing, or youth alienation, or the lack of a middle-class… Riots, criminality and social disintegration are caused solely by individual characters and attitudes. So long as bad moral attitudes remain, all efforts to improve the inner cities will founder.” Letwin’s memos have been largely condemned as racist – he goes on to state that “lower-class, unemployed white people lived for years in appalling slums without a breakdown of public order on anything like the present scale.

Today, Broadwater Farm is doing pretty well. Some of its worst design features (the overhead walkways identified in Alice Coleman’s controversial Utopia On Trial , for example) have been removed, its social order is organically and locally-led, and it would be a stretch too far to blame the Farm for the 2011 riots. (Incidentally, Cameron doesn’t mention that his apparent “spatial analysis” is of convictions, not of the rioters themselves – with police relations as they are in Tottenham, don’t take this on face value).

Simon Image 2

Coles Croft, Wolverhampton – part of the area known as “Carribee Island”. Picture courtesy of Wolverhampton Archives and Local Studies.

In my own area of research, things were hardly different 150 years ago. In Wolverhampton, the ‘Carribee Island’ area around Stafford Street and Canal Street was a very unpleasant places indeed, particularly to our modern eyes (and noses). Such areas were held as “epitomes” (to use Cameron’s words) of social ills, despite the fact that much of Wolverhampton was in a similar physical condition. Anti-social behaviour (or the preferred term, “rows”) was held to be rife, particularly amongst the Irish immigrants which had poured into the town in the wake of the Irish famine of the 1840s and were causing consternation amongst the morally-upright of the day. Analysis by major social commentators found ‘ghettos’ of the worst poverty in the big cities, and race again played a part – Engels’ description of Manchester’s Little Ireland is a famous version of this. When major disorder occurred, the Irish were the first to be blamed, and reports always made sure to base them in particular parts of town, as though it were the area as much as the people that caused the riotous behaviour.

As Alan Mayne stated in 1993, “slums are myths… their reality lay in the constructions of common-sense conviction, and in the certainties of public knowledge which common sense understandings sustained, rather than in the material conditions of everyday living.” Much like Cameron did yesterday, conveniently small and spatially distinct areas were constructed into symbols of urban malaise, which in turn became thought of as the sole problems to be dealt with. The 1875 Artizans and Labourers Dwellings Act enabled these small areas to be dealt with bit by bit – Wolverhampton used it to raze Carribee Island, and Joseph Chamberlain used it to bulldoze Corporation Street through similar areas of deprivation and Irish immigration in Birmingham. The formal slum clearance schemes which took place right through to the 1970s stand testament to the effectiveness of such schemes.

Presenting 100 housing estates as the sum of society’s ills shows remarkable ignorance of housing estates, housing in general, and of the politics of space. The dangers of stigmatizing spaces should be evident, but are too often neglected. This is as true of the Victorian “slums” of Wolverhampton or Birmingham as the apparent jihadi hotspot of Molenbeek in Brussels; of Broadwater Farm in 1985 as of the as-yet-unnamed problem estates to be isolated by Cameron and Heseltine. These are real places that are lived in and experienced by real people, first and foremost, not abstract spaces and not political footballs. To treat them as such does a disservice to these people and avoids looking at the bigger socio-economic problems that have always manifested themselves in housing.


One thought on “‘Symbols of Urban Malaise’: Past and Present

  1. Reblogged this on Up The Oss Road and commented:
    Rather than a brand new post here this week, I’ve written this for the MBS Birmingham blog on Cameron’s approach to so-called “sink estates”, or as Michael Heseltine believes, everyone knows that they’re “slums”. As you can imagine, that got my back up a bit.

    Language, as Chomsky, Foucault, Lefebvre or any number of other critical theorists will tell you, is crucial. It sets the tone and the scope of debate, it stigmatizes and divides, it creates problems and solves different ones. For Lefebvre, it’s an integral part of the production of social space – describing a housing estate as a slum automatically sets a tone and starts a debate, whether there’s any basis for this or not. It’s even more specific this week: Cameron is targeting language itself as a cause of extremism, of segregation, of division and modern cultural problems. Statistics fly around about the number of women, in particular, amongst Muslims, in particular, who are not learning the Queen’s Own English. Like slums, these are myths – not to say there aren’t truths hidden in there but they are obfuscated by larger, disingenuous distractions. The effect of these is to redirect public opinion away from the wider benefits to society that learning a language can bring (which the last government’s free ESOL classes sought to help) and towards the stigmatisation of small sections of society which can be blamed (women; Muslims; foreigners). It’s all highly distasteful, and a major problem of modern political debate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s