Speaking Back To Stigma: social housing and solidarity in East London

Speaking Back To Stigma: social housing and solidarity in East London

Photo: Liam Barrington-Bush

Tracey Jensen (University of East London)


You do not have to travel very far in the Olympic Borough of Newham to see the stark inequalities that have opened up after the 2012 London Games.  Take a tour from the absolutely vast and brand new Westfield shopping centre next to Stratford station, the heart of an area now called ‘Stratford City’, through the sculpted Olympic Park and you will see a long horizon of housing development which hugs the prime estate perimeter.  Head in a slightly different direction however and you will soon find yourself in the centre of a half-empty housing estate, dotted with boarded-up properties, metal grilles fastened over the windows and doors.

Welcome to the Carpenters Estate, a council estate built in the 1960s and earmarked for ‘regeneration’ in 2001.  The official version of this history – that regeneration was necessary from a safety perspective (asbestos in the building shells) and that it would benefit residents – makes for interesting reading.  Other histories are more critical and reveal the extent to which Carpenter’s residents were disenfranchised and excluded from the consultation process, while being steadily decanted and dispersed to other neighbourhoods and boroughs.  Like many other social housing estates, the Carpenters has been rewritten as a ‘problem’, a transient ghetto, an unloved ‘sink estate’ which residents were keen to leave.

The stigmatisation of social housing has been aggravated by the enthusiastic use of council estates as filmic and televisual backdrops of urban disorder, criminality and menace.  The Carpenters Estate was the setting for the 2011 film Attack The Block, just one example in a steady diet of council estate misrepresentation which has often angered residents.  Such representational shorthands come to overwrite the fact that many council residents like living on their estates and often do not wish to leave.  The desire to stay put is all too often unheeded, and the right to return once regeneration has been completed usually dissipates partway through the planning processes.  Across regeneration projects, a familiar pattern has emerged, whereby the units earmarked as social housing dwindle steadily down, in some cases to zero. Urban theorists have highlighted how the deliberate running down of social housing stock in both number and quality (through Right To Buy, housing stock transfer and council estate demolition) represents state-led gentrification, replacing low rent-paying council tenants with high rent-paying private tenants.

The Carpenters Estate was of little interest to the wider world, until it became the centre of a national media news story on the 21st September, when the Focus E15 Mothers, a group of housing activists, occupied 80-86 Doran Walk, one of the empty blocks to be demolished, and declared it a social centre.  They held the block for a little under two weeks, holding workshops, information sessions and social events every day with the help of a rota of volunteers.

The E15 Social Centre was the culmination of a year of creative activism by the Focus E15 Mums, a group of young women who had been living in a temporary hostel for young homeless people with 90 self-contained units, about a third set up as mother and baby units.  In September 2013, the mothers were informed that the financial support paid by Newham Council towards their accommodation would be cut and they were served notices to leave by the Housing Association which manages the hostel.  And so the ruthless machinery of housing allocation kicked into action.  The women were told to look for alternative housing in the private rental market, despite the fact that Local Housing Allowance for a mother and child is around £950pcm in Newham, whilst the average private rental flat is let for £1,173pcm.  Some of the women were offered accommodation in cheaper parts of the country – including Hastings, Manchester and Birmingham – and were told that, if they refused such an offer, they would be considered to have made themselves “intentionally homeless”, thus freeing Newham Council from any further obligations to help them. Some of the women were in the hostel because they were escaping domestic violence, yet they were described as ‘not vulnerable, but needy’.

In order for these procedures to seem anything other than grotesque, the people on the receiving end of them must be transformed into figures of disgust.  As theorist of social abjection, Imogen Tyler, has eloquently argued, a state of economic insecurity has been produced in Britain by channelling public anxieties and hostilities towards scapegoated figures, such as irregular migrants, the unemployed and welfare recipients.  Of all the figures of crisis, against whom disgust is whipped up in the neoliberal theatre of insecurity, it is perhaps the young, welfare-dependent, single mother who has been the most consistently vilified and stigmatized throughout recent social history.  The resurgence of toxic divisions such as deserving/ undeserving poor often attach to single mothers first and foremost, and single mothers continue to be invoked as the cause of stagnant social mobility, undisciplined children and an intergenerationally transmitted lack of aspiration.  As the welfare state is ‘reformed’ and austerity regime extended, it is the welfare entitlements of single mothers that are most rapidly shrinking and becoming ever more conditional.  In 2011 the Fawcett Society described single mothers as “the shock absorbers for the cuts.”

Many commonsense perceptions about social housing and people who live in social housing work to position ‘the estate’ as a social purgatory, or in Loic Wacquant’s words, as “a leprous badlands at the heart of postindustrial metropolis where only the refuse of society would agree to dwell” (Urban Outcasts, 2008: 237).  Wacquant recognised that stigma has a powerful spatial dimension, that this manifests through feelings of guilt and shame for living in a ‘ghetto’, being secretive about one’s address with employers, and avoiding being visited at home by friends. Such territorial stigmatisation is also enacted at a policy level, when council estates become named in official documents as lawless, problem or dangerous.  It is enacted at a cultural level when sensationalist television misrepresents ‘problem places’ and the ‘problem people’ that live there.  The symbolic violence of spatial stigma is enacted through the policing of imaginary, but potent, boundaries and through devaluation of those that are seen to fall on the ‘wrong’ side of the border

In particular, the anxieties that are mobilized around the fertility of young, single women must be analysed within the context of these broader cultural politics of disgust and the part this disgust plays in undermining public support for social housing.  The diminishing supply of social housing has resulted in resentments between those with and without a claim to tenancy – however precarious those claims might be.  Recent populist reality television has fervently played on these resentments, contributing to the commonsense myths that state support creates moral weakness or dependency, a discourse which serves to obscure the housing crisis faced by all low-income residents.  This discourse legitimises the replacement of a supportive welfare state with a punitive, conditional, neoliberal state.

In the post-welfare housing regime, many London borough councils are evading difficult conversations about inadequate housebuilding, the ballooning private renting sector, the scandal of empty homes and a myriad of other policy failures; opting to simply decant and disperse their low-income residents to cheaper parts of the UK.  What has been so powerful about the Focus E15 Mums and their occupation of the Carpenters Estate has been their refusal to be stigmatised and the way they have successfully articulated their personal struggles with wider processes of displacement. They have found inventive ways to campaign for their right to be housed and to generate new forms of solidarity with others facing the costs of neoliberalism.

In their public response to the Focus E15 campaign and Carpenters occupation, Newham Council described their actions as ‘confrontational’, ‘inexcusable’ and “disruptive […] to other residents”, attempting to symbolically splinter the campaign into ‘hardline activists, agitators and hangers-on from those in ‘genuine need’.  In attempting to designate factions within the campaign, Newham Council seek to dismiss it, but in doing so, they seem to have misjudged the mood on the ground.  This group of highly precarious women have articulated their claim to housing and social support in imaginative and resourceful ways, and in doing so they have managed to unify the usually disparate groups who must usually struggle with one another for a claim to housing.  They have spoken back to the ways that the housing crisis has been framed; from a set of question about ‘economic viability’ and land capitalisation, to a set of demands for the right to a secure future.  The excitement as this campaign connects up with other local resistances to displacement speaks of a new common idiom around social housing.  How durable this will be remains to be seen; but for now it seems clear that this campaigning work has illuminated new avenues of resistance for further ‘speaking back’ to neoliberal statecraft.


Tracey Jensen is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of East London. Her research examines how figures of crisis are produced and circulated across media, culture and policy. Her book, Parenting The Crisis: the cultural politics of parent-blame, will be published by Policy Press.