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.

 
 
 
 

Community-powered policies should be at the top of Westminster’s to do list

A generic election picture. Image: Getty.

Over the past five decades, political and economic power has become increasingly concentrated in the UK’s capital. Communities feel ignored or alienated by a politics that feels distant and unrepresentative of their daily experiences.

Since the EU referendum result it has become something of a cliché to talk about how to respond to the sense of powerlessness felt by too many people. The foundations of our economy have been shifted by Brexit, technology and deindustrialisation – and these have shone a light on a growing divergence in views and values across geographies and generations. They are both a symptom and cause of the breakdown of the ties that traditionally brought people together.

As the country goes through seismic changes in its outlook, politics and economy, it is clear that a new way of doing politics is needed. Empowering people to take control over the things that affect their daily lives cannot be done from the top down.

Last week, the Co-operative Party launched our policy platform for the General Election – the ideas and priorities we hope to see at the top of the next Parliament’s to do list. We have been the voice for co-operative values and principles in the places where decisions are made and laws are made. As co-operators, we believe that the principles that lie behind successful co‑operatives – democratic control by customers and workers, and a fair share of the wealth we create together – ought to extend to the wider economy and our society. As Labour’s sister party, we campaign for a government that puts these shared values into practice.

Our policy platform has community power at its heart, because the co-operative movement, founded on shop floors and factory production lines, knows that power should flow from the bottom up. Today, this principle holds strong – decisions are best made by the people impacted the most by them, and services work best when the service users have a voice. Our policy platform is clear: this means shifting power from Whitehall to local government, but it also means looking beyond the town hall. Co-operative approaches are about placing power directly in the hands of people and communities.


There are many great examples of Co-operative councillors and local communities taking the lead on this. Co-operative councils like Oldham and Plymouth have pioneered new working relationships with residents, underpinned by a genuine commitment to working with communities rather than merely doing things to them.

Building a fairer future is, by definition, a bottom-up endeavour. Oldham, Plymouth and examples like the Elephant Project in Greater Manchester, where people with experience of disadvantage are involved in decision-making, or buses in Witney run by Co-operative councillors and the local community – are the building blocks of creating a better politics and a fairer economy.

This thread runs through our work over the last few years on community wealth building too – keeping wealth circulating in local economies through growing the local co-operative sector. Worker-owned businesses thriving at the expense of global corporate giants and private outsourcers. Assets owned by communities – from pubs to post offices to rooftop solar panels.

And it runs through our work in Westminster too – with Co-operative MPs and peers calling for parents, not private business, to own and run nurseries; for the stewards of our countryside to be farmers rather than big landowners; and for workers to have a stake in their workplaces and a share of the profit.

Far from being ignored, as suggested in last week’s article on community power, our work has never been more relevant and our co-operative voice is louder than ever.

Anna Birley is policy offer at the Co-operative party.