ON THE FRONTLINE: Redeveloping Southall: A Story of Soil, Gas, Empire and Resistance

ON THE FRONTLINE: Redeveloping Southall: A Story of Soil, Gas, Empire and Resistance

Eleanor Kashouris and Jacob Hendry

In 1869 the towers of a major gas works went up in Southall, then a small town to the west of Victorian London. The gas works were built to provide for the rapidly growing population of the region, as demand outstripped the capacity of the Brentford gas works. Built at the confluence of two great arteries of industrial Britain, the Grand Junction Canal and Brunel’s Great Western Railway, the 480,000 cubic feet gas holder dominated Southall’s skyline.

For the town’s working classes, the smells, sights and tastes of Britain’s industrial revolution were part of daily life. Anthropologist Anna Tsing describes these periods of rapid industrialisation as entailing a view of nature as ‘a backdrop and a resource.’ In the industrialising economic systems forged by enlightenment thinking and financed by wealth extracted from the empire, the natural environment existed only beyond the bounds of industrialised urban centres.

However, in the midst of global climate collapse and the upheaval of global economic systems founded on industrialisation, environmental justice movements locate the natural environment differently. As Stacy Alaimo outlines, such movements imagine “the environment” not in some distant place, but within homes, schools, workplaces, and neighbourhoods.’ The environment is not beyond the bounds of London; the environment does not stop at human skin.

In Southall in 2017, the soil beneath the old gas works was turned, in preparation for building on the site. Old gas works extracted gas from coal and waste tars were often dumped in the local area. Over time, they degrade into toxic hydrocarbons. These hydrocarbons were stored in the soil until they were disturbed by the re-development, making it too dangerous to transport. The soil was therefore treated on site, in a large soil ‘hospital.’ Over a century’s worth of toxic organic compounds such as benzene, naphthalene and trichloroethylene were released into the air and wafted their way into living rooms, primary schools and community centres on the wind.

Today, right now, local residents still complain of a petroleum-like stench in the area, dizziness, nausea, coughs and headaches. Residents also report increased incidence of chest infections, and high rates of cancers originating in the airways. As Nancy Tuana points out, the boundaries between our flesh and the flesh of the world we are of and in are porous. This porosity does not discriminate between that which sustains us and that which harms us. Indeed, benzene and trichloroethylene are known carcinogens and the July 2019 Public Health England toxicology report on the development site in Southall calculated excess lifetime cancer risks of 1 in 70,000 from trichloroethylene and 1 in 100,000 from benzene.

However, these figures are called into question as conservative calculations by residents, as the data for the report was paid for by Berkeley Homes themselves, who are redeveloping the gasworks site at an estimated value of over £1 billion. Ealing Council has not ordered independent air quality monitoring and the people of Southall continue to breathe in the air day in, day out.

Initially, the Council had rejected an application for planning permission due to local concerns over pollution, and also the low proportions of social housing planned. However, after the personal intervention of then London Mayor, Boris Johnson, the council’s decision was over-ruled, and development went ahead. As the soil is toxic, the lungs of local residents have also become toxic.

Entanglement is a concept that has been used by many in Science and Technology Studies to better understand the ways in which our bodies are enmeshed in the environment. For instance, we could say that the environment of Southall does not exist only in the soil but is entangled in the bodies of those who live there. However, acknowledging the entanglement of human life with its environment does not, as Elizabeth Roberts warns, mean celebrating ‘the endless entanglement of those who live within the shit.’

Indeed, what we see in Southall is the over-entanglement of people who carry a disproportionate toxic load. Southall is home to a predominantly working-class community which is being rapidly re-developed. Moreover, the racialization of the people of Southall is implicated in sociologist Gargi Bhattacharyya’s argument that ‘the myth of expendability- of expendable peoples and expendable regions’ is crucial to contemporary economic models and is rooted in colonialism.

Gas works were often located in the poorest parts of cities because people there were deemed expendable. The re-development which stoked the release of toxins, like so many re-developments in London, is not intended to benefit local residents, who are also deemed expendable. Social housing planned is minimum and where the Transport For London sign at Southall station welcomes passengers in Gurmukhī, a script commonly used for the Punjabi language, re-development is in no small part prompted by the coming Crossrail link into central London, threatening large scale gentrification. Bhattacharyya’s argument that the tabulation of expendable populations runs along colonial lines is further reinforced by the fact that many residents of Southall have family histories as subjects of the British Raj.

However, toxins can be hard to trace. Local residents, talking of increased cancer rates in a video produced by local activists, grasp at causal relations: ‘I don’t think it’s a coincidence.’ The residents of Southall note the entanglement of the toxins in their bodies and the toxins in the environment. However, this does not mean accepting entanglement. The Southall community has a long and radical history of anti-racist resistance. These traditions have not been lost. The Clean Air for Southall and Hayes campaign, which is bringing a legal challenge to Berkeley Homes, practises an example of ‘lay epidemiology’ in forming a collective out of their individual illness experiences.

As a concept, entanglement can lead to a political dead-end where action is stymied by an acceptance of outsides as insides and of the inseparability of the ‘social’ and the ‘natural.’ But if we are to hold developers who do not give due diligence to the environmental impacts of their business accountable, we need to have some measure of the extent to which human action has exacerbated the effects of natural phenomenon.

As Tuana points out, we can make this distinction for political reasons without it being a natural kind. Moreover, it is deeply important that reliance on social constructionism has been an invaluable and precious manoeuvre on the part of movements resisting racist, sexist and classist appeals to biological accounts of inferiority. Nonetheless, in Southall, we can reject the biologized explanations that too often accompany the disproportionate suffering of marginalised groups, whilst at the same time leaning back from a purely socially constructivist account of the body, which struggles to account for the cancerous tumours caused by toxins in the air.

Having considered the limits of entanglement, and especially the problems with reifying entanglement, we can instead turn to noticing entanglement in order to learn better and more just ways to live with it. As Tsing says, ‘we have created a set of dangerous environments and we can’t just keep imagining that we can exclude them or put them elsewhere.’ Instead, we have to learn strategies to live in and with them, as a matter of social justice. One example of a way in which we might live amongst the ruins of industrial racial capitalism, whilst acknowledging the porosity of the self in the environment, came on the other side of London in Stratford.

In 2012, the chimneys of industrialising Britain once again rose from the ground, this time in Danny Boyle’s depiction of the industrial revolution. Before its regeneration as the Olympic park, the Lower Lee Valley, similarly to Southall, was predominantly comprised of low-income housing and bore the marks of heavy industry. Chemicals, glue and other industrial landfill debris had contaminated the soil and the groundwater. The contaminated groundwater was treated via the introduction of archaea, microorganisms that ‘eat’ ammonia. Whilst human relations with microbes have overwhelmingly been cast in terms of our porosity to pathogenic microorganisms, especially as we isolate in order to avoid contact with the Covid-19 pathogen, this is just one of many entangled relationships, the great majority of which are not pathogenic.

This example of human and non-human collaboration demonstrates how understanding the world and the self as coextensive, or the outsides as the insides, can lead to symbiotic processes of living together. As with the Southall re-development prompted by Crossrail, this strategy was prompted by the reclaiming of low-value land for the Olympics. What we urgently need to do is apply these strategies and ways of thinking to regions and people that racial capitalism has deemed expendable, and who are always over-implicated in entanglement. One place to start is by supporting the Clean Air for Southall and Hayes Campaign.

You can follow the Campaign, and get involved, via the Facebook page or the Website.


Eleanor Kashouris is a PhD student in the Sociology Department at the University of Sussex. Her Wellcome Trust funded research explores the experience of urinary tract infection for women who live with these common bacterial infections, paying particular attention to how inequality is implicated. You can follow the research on @amrinterrupted on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and @ekashouris on Twitter. Jacob Hendry is a PhD student in the History Faculty at the University of Cambridge. His research explores sensorial experiences of the landscape and notions of the past in eighteenth-century Britain. You can follow his research on Twitter @jacobfhendry

Image Credit: Ordinance Survey Map of Surrey I Surveyed: 1867 Published: 1871