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.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.