Corby shows how working-class towns risk becoming dumping grounds for waste

Corby railway station. Image: AmosWolfe/Wikimedia Commons.

My hometown of Corby is a former steelworks town in the East Midlands, UK. The town has among the lowest levels of social mobility in the country. In the BBC’s Great British Class Survey, Corby was classified as a “precariat” town, which means that many residents are from the most disadvantaged social class in Britain. Now the county council plans to turn Corby into one of the country’s biggest receivers of waste, with potentially four plants processing rubbish brought in from London, Birmingham and beyond.

The latest plans under review, submitted by the Devon-based Corby Ltd company, would involve importing 260,000 tonnes of waste into Corby each year, creating around 30 full-time jobs at a new energy recovery facility, where rubbish is burned to generate electricity. The proposed site is within 100 metres of a primary school and close to a struggling secondary school. This would mean an estimated 175 heavy goods vehicles transporting waste past disadvantaged children each day.

This risks signalling to young people that they don’t matter. Children were born in Corby with lifelong disabilities from the inadequate disposal of toxic waste, following the closure of the steelworks just over 40 years ago, and the landmark ruling about this case was only decided in 2009, so the trauma is fresh in the town’s collective memory. And dirt has had a deep and damaging meaning for working-class communities, which planners need to appreciate.

Dirt’s deeper meanings

A leading scholar on class, Beverley Skeggs, has shown how the English working class have historically been associated with dirt, filth and waste. For example, under the Victorian poor laws, the most socioeconomically disadvantaged people were viewed as dirty, diseased, idle and immoral, and therefore held to be undeserving of state support and sent to the workhouse. Such laws formalised standards of respectability, which still resonate today in the pressure felt by working-class people to work hard, avoid claiming benefits, raise children well, keep a clean house and so on.

My own research has found that residents in Corby uphold norms of respectability. Cleanliness is very important, and being associated with dirt or rubbish can have a negative impact on someone’s self-esteem. Calling someone dirty or unclean is a significant insult – and that extends to calling someone’s house, car, street, estate or town dirty.

‘Steelmen not binmen’ – a protest in Corby. Image: Lee Forster/author provided.

Dirt and waste are infused with undesirable connotations, which can be deeply hurtful. To be connected with dirt is to lose respectability, and to lose respectability is to lose class status. Consequently, plans to transport waste into working-class towns like Corby could be especially harmful to those communities.

Working-class stories

There are plenty of examples from around the world which attest to the psychological harm of associating working-class people with dirt. Lisa McKenzie – a sociologist and lecturer at Middlesex University – explains how “painful”, “difficult” and “upsetting” it was, as a teenager growing up on an English council estate, to learn that people thought of the working class as being dirty.

Many other writers from working-class backgrounds have documented similar experiences, from the work of British writer Lynsey Hanley in her books Estates and Respectable, to the moving biographies of French sociologist Didier Eribon and French writer Édouard Louis. Most recently the US president, Donald Trump, drew criticism for referring to the district of Baltimore as “disgusting, rodent and rat infested” – evoking a stereotype of impoverished and majority black areas which dates back to slavery and the American Civil War.

The decision for Corby to receive huge amounts of waste might rest on that middle-class view of the poor as dirty. But even if decision-makers do not actively associate Corby or the working class with dirt, their failure to appreciate the symbolic harm of mainlining rubbish into disadvantaged communities is a concerning oversight.


At home and abroad

The plans to offload waste to Corby is but one example of the wealthy being chiefly responsible for environmental damage caused by consumption, while disadvantaged communities face the harmful consequences. The World Bank reports that, “though they only account for 16 per cent of the world’s population, high-income countries generate about 34 per cent, or 683m tonnes, of the world’s waste”. The Carbon Majors Report found that between 1988 and 2015, 100 companies have been responsible for 71 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Indeed, rich nations such as Britain have treated poorer populations across the world as sites for waste disposal for many decades. Until January 2018, China was the largest global receiver of waste. But concerns about pollution and contamination led the Chinese government to change policy and they no longer accept foreign imports of certain types of plastic. Since then, rich countries have been exporting waste to various disadvantaged communities in Asia – including in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia – with devastating consequences.

Now the lack of care for disadvantaged communities is happening here in the UK, as well as elsewhere. And as a result, inequality is on course to become more pronounced, visible and entrenched. Whether at home or abroad, this strategy does not work.

In the present day, when local governments and states are recognising the climate emergency, it is crucial to develop sustainable and ethical ways to manage waste. Instead of dumping the problem on disadvantaged communities, waste needs to be visible to those who are making it. Perhaps then governments would start to address the more pressing issue at hand: how to prevent waste in the first place.

The Conversation

Roxana Willis, Junior Research Fellow in Law and British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Criminology, University of Oxford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.