“Housing is just one part of making a good society” – An interview with Lisa McKenzie

Dr Lisa Mckenzie is a research fellow in Sociology at the London School of Economics. In February, I interviewed Lisa about her new book, Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain (Policy Press, 2015). The book is based on her ethnographic research into life in St Ann’s, a council housing estate of 15,000 people in Nottingham.

Writing the book

Elinor Chisholm: You describe the book as a “story from the inside”. How did having lived on the estate for two decades, and having grown up on another estate, affect the way you told the story of St Ann’s?

Lisa McKenzie: It affected everything. In Britain, if you’re brought up on a council estate, it means something. There’s hidden meanings. But as a kid, you don’t always know what they are. It’s only when you start to dig your toe into the outside world that you start to realise what people think about you. You start thinking: what’s going on here?

I always knew I was going to write this book. I was on an access course, which is like community college –it’s for adults and it helps you get into a university. They used to be free here, or a low price, and it’s £3000 a year now. So now they’re not accessible. I thought I was going to be a social worker, because I didn’t know any women who had been to university and not done a vocational course. Somebody came to class from the University of Nottingham, and they talked about this book: Poverty: The Forgotten Englishmen (1970). It’s about St Ann’s, it’s a book and a film.

The authors – Ken Coates and Richard Silburn – spent their lives fighting poverty. We don’t get people like this in universities any more. People who are academics and political activists. They write the book, but it’s not just about the book, it’s about changing something. It inspired me in many different ways. But I recognised that my voice wasn’t in here. I read lots of other books similar to this, and I’m not in there. I wanted to write something and say something with my voice. I thought: I want to do this. I did a degree in sociology. I always knew that I was going to tell this story from my perspective.

The research that I do now on class inequality is a real thing for me. It’s not a research subject. It’s happening to me, it’s happening to my friends, it’s happening to my son. I can’t ever be a distant academic because it matters too much. The gap between rich and poor is becoming wider and wider everywhere, I see it and I feel it. If I can say anything or do anything than I should be doing it. That’s the effect it has on me. This is my life. This is what I do. This is my political fight.

EC: In the book you talk about how St Ann’s has problems, but that it’s also a very strong and supportive community. How did you balance presenting that complexity with the need to counter the negative stereotypes of council housing often spread by the media?

LM: When you do this sort of research, or even if you’re from an estate, you take every day as it is. [But] something really exciting and important happens when working class people get into higher education or self-education. You are able to put your life into a context. I was able to know and experience the estate and all the people that lived there and then I was able to read Pierre Bourdieu and try and contextualise it and think – what’s really happening here?

I’ve read so many books – “people that live on council estates are criminals”. Or I’ve also read books that say “they’re working class heroes, they’re valiant”, and turn them into something they’re not. I know that in reality people are all things. People are good mums, and drug dealers. People are absolutely committed to their families, and do things that are wrong. That’s just the reality. What I wanted to do was explain it.

One of the ways I did that was with the Gucci sunglasses. That story is really important to me. It wasn’t a big deal. It was a really small story. There were much worse stories – drug dealing, violence – that I’d seen and heard. But I knew that it was one of those things that are usually pinpointed when people are looking to denigrate our people.

The story is about a woman I knew really well, I used to see her every day. I knew that being on benefits was really dragging her down. For months she had been complaining that she was running out of money. She was showing me pictures of her house – “look, the wallpaper’s coming off now!” She was getting so depressed by her environment.

This one day she said to me, “Lisa, I’ve been a bad mum”. And being a good mum on the estate is a very valued position. Being a good mum is the best thing you can be. To say “I’m a bad mum” is a big deal. I said, “why do think you’re a bad mum?” She said, “I’ve run out of money and the kids have had cornflakes for their dinner”. That is shameful, to not be able to afford to feed kids on a council estate. There is a myth that people use food banks willy-nilly. They don’t. They go to a food bank when they’re desperate, and they would feel awful about that. To not be able to feed your children is the worst thing. It’s soul destroying. I said, “no, everyone’s had to do that at one point”. The next day she got her benefits, and a guy came in to the gym with sunglasses he’d nicked. Gucci sunglasses worth £300 that she’d never been able to have. And they were £25. So she could have a pair. So she bought them and a big share of her benefit went on them. I said “go on, buy them” knowing that her kids were having cornflakes.

It’s not about just having no money for a week. It drags on you month after month, the way that everyone is judging you as a woman and as a mother. You just want to join in with society. She really needed those sunglasses, and I would argue that with anyone. It’s about a lifetime of struggle, a lifetime of being looked down, of never being good enough, of it always being our fault. You can’t do this in sound bites. Ethnography, the type of work I do, is really important, it exposes power and inequalities.

Life in St Ann’s

EC: In the book, people are frustrated with the strange layout of the estate. People get lost, delivery people don’t deliver. What have you learned from St Ann’s about what’s important in designing council housing?

LM: The way that St Ann’s was, was the two-up, two-down terraces, like Coronation Street. They were over a hundred years old and built really cheaply, and they were crumbling. They put up these new houses in the 1970s, but a similar thing happened. The architects were doing a Corbusier sort of community. There was nothing wrong with what they imagined, but they built it on the cheap. What we could learn from that it is that high-density housing is not a bad thing. But it’s got to be well-maintained, and people have got to be given a little bit of privacy. You can’t do it on the cheap.

St Ann’s problems are socio-economic problems, not housing problems. In those estates are the poorer people, the people that are most likely to be made redundant, the people that are going to be in and out of work because of the system. During the 1980s we got massive unemployment, and inner-city areas like St Ann’s were particularly hit bad. Because it was open-plan, they’ve got dark alleys down the back. They’d not really thought through that. There was a lot of car theft because you couldn’t park your car anywhere near your home, because they’d decided it was going to be without traffic. It wasn’t done practically thinking about the people who were going to live in it. Public transport doesn’t serve it. It’s not joined up. The estates aren’t the problem, it’s not joining them up.

And it’s not the housing, it’s the circumstances in which people are living. If we built a million council houses, but nobody had any jobs, and there was no public transport, you’re just going to have the same problems. People aren’t going to be homeless, which is a big thing. We need to address housing, but if we don’t address jobs and low incomes and healthcare and education at the same time all you’ve got is people in housing. If we build people lots of houses, people will be safe and won’t be street homeless, but it won’t solve other problems.

That’s what happened at St Ann’s. There was lots of housing but also lots of social problems. In the 1990s they started putting gates and locks and bars up everywhere. People were burglaring each other’s homes because of unemployment. They weren’t tackling the roots [of the social problems], they were just putting gates and bolts up. Now people in St Ann’s look like they’re in prison.

EC: What is the quality of the housing like in St Ann’s?

LM: It’s built very cheaply. The houses are difficult to maintain. So the old problems of damp have returned. Although, to be honest my three years in [private rental in] London have made me appreciate how good they are, compared to the way the private sector runs. People in council estates wait to get repairs, but they do get repairs.

EC: Can you talk a little bit about how businesses have left St Ann’s, and how this has affected the community?

LM: It has become desolate. Because you can’t do anything locally. You have to do everything in the city centre because there’s nothing. The only shops in St Ann’s are corner shops. The main business of the corner shops is lottery tickets, alcohol and scratch cards. And electrics cards and gas keys. You have to buy a card from the shop and put it in the meter to get gas and electricity. Whereas where I live in Bethnal Green [East London], you can literally get anything. St Ann’s used to be like Bethnal Green. It used to have a high street. Before it was knocked down, it was filled with businesses. When they knocked it down and rebuilt [in the 1970s], they took it out, and the businesses never came back. At St Ann’s, there were warehouses, there were workshops, there were factories. People used to work and live there. Now, the only work you could do in St Ann’s is for the council.

If you were cynical you would say it’s planned and organised decline. If you were me, you would call it Social Darwinism, as I do in the book I’m writing right now. In the 70s, they thought they were genuinely doing good. The people that were moving out of the old houses into the new houses loved them. But the council didn’t maintain them. They didn’t anticipate what would happen when people were unemployed, what would happen when there was no work, what would happen when there were no shops, what would happen when there were no pubs. There was no anticipation of that.

That‘s the lesson we should learn. Housing is just one part of making a good society. It’s a really important part because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from living in London, it’s that if you take housing out of the equation you are fucked. Housing is the foundation to everything else.

EC: Can you explain the term “estatism”? I understood it in the book to be the flipside of the positive thing of feeling comfortable and belonging in your community.

That can easily turn into a siege mentality. That’s what I call estatism. When people go, “everyone hates us out there. They look down on us, they’re mean to us, they treat us badly, we’re not going there”. Young people that are safe and feel safe in their community and don’t feel safe outside of their community, so they become inward-looking and territorial. And you can’t blame them. But what happens is people don’t leave where they are. People go, “we can’t make it out here, we’ll make it in here”. Then it becomes a problem. Especially if you haven’t got anything in your community. In St Ann’s, we haven’t got anything. There’s no work. Making it there becomes about the underground economy. You can buy a lot of drugs in St Ann’s.

Changes to council housing

EC: In the news at the moment, we’re hearing a lot about the government wanting to demolish so-called “sink estates” and develop them into mixed-income communities.

LM: That’s what David Cameron is saying. Nobody that lives on council estates thinks [we should do] that. He would consider St Ann’s a sink estate. Knocking a council estate down – is that going to be giving people a living wage? No. Is it going to be giving them a secure job? No. Is it going to give them an affordable rent? No. All the things that are problems, it doesn’t touch.

 In London, as soon as something’s mixed income, it basically means that the poorer people get moved out. It doesn’t mean mixed income, it means “goodbye working class people.” Outside London is different. Unless you live on that estate or you’re from that estate, people don’t want to live there. Nottingham doesn’t have the housing shortage that we have in London. In a place like St Ann’s, you won’t get middle class people living there. They don’t need to live there and they don’t want to live there because it’s where “horrible people” live. They want to stay away from it.

They did try in St Ann’s to do mixed income. They built about 20 new homes that they then sold, and they all got sold to private landlords. And the people that couldn’t get a council house and wanted to live on the estate went and private rented. All it did was transfer housing benefit from the council to the private sector, and the rents were obviously double.

EC: The government is introducing massive changes to council housing under the Housing and Planning Bill, including reviewable tenancies and a requirement that you pay market rent if your income rises above £40,000 (in London) or £30,000 (in the rest of the UK). Are people at St Ann’s worried?

LM: People don’t understand it. They will understand it when it starts to hits them. The £30,000 limit will be a problem. If you’ve got two people working in a house, making £15,000 each, which is not a lot – their rent will double. That is massive. [Under the Bill] you’ve got five-year tenancies, and you also can’t pass the house on in the same way that you used to. The council house I was brought up in, it was my grandma’s, and then it was my mum’s. My family’s still in it. That’s not going to happen now. They’re going to allow one succession, I think.

It’s going to hit people very differently. In London it will be the end of council housing, because there’s a clause in it that says whenever a high value property becomes vacant the council has to sell it. They have to put it on the market. The thing is, that is every single council house in London. Because they’re all high value. In St Ann’s the properties won’t be high value like they are here because people don’t want to live there.

Symbolic violence and building resistance

EC: You draw on Bourdieu throughout the book. How do see symbolic violence playing out in St Ann’s?

LM: It’s not physically forcing someone to do something or stop doing something. It’s symbolically, emotionally. The way that it happens to working class people in Britain is when you say to working class people “the reason that you don’t have a job is because you’re stupid”. You’re removing all the power structures away and you’re telling them it’s just them. It’s an organisation of power. It’s quite depressing.

In St Ann’s, you’re there, you can get by, your life is shit, and it’s going to stretch out, nothing good is going to happen to you. You’re not going to get a better job. You’re not going to live in a nice house. You’re just going to carry on getting by. It’s this sort of soul-destroying symbolic violence constantly, and it weighs on people. That‘s what happens to people in Nottingham, they get smaller with the weight. Whereas in London, it’s like monsters jumping out all the time. Rent-rise, job loss. You go under water here. In St Ann’s, you just tread water your whole life. Both are horrible. This is the reality of inequality. If you’re in London or if you’re in Nottingham, if you’re working class, it’s shit. And you feel on an emotional level that it’s all your fault. You’re powerless. This is what symbolic violence is. It’s nasty.

People are stressed that they’re going to be homeless, and they go to the council officers. And they’re really upset. And the council people say, “Could you keep your voice down, madam.” And they go, “No, I’m really angry”. And the council people go, “You’re shouting now.” And they go, “I’m not shouting, I’m just upset.” And the council people go, “Right, we’ll phone the police”. And they go, “No don’t phone the police”. And the police come and they go, “Calm down madam”. And you go, “Don’t touch me!” and before you know it you’re in prison. You see, this is what I see in my life all the time.

This is “mixed communities”. One group wouldn’t phone the police over an argument, one group would. And when the police come, the police believe one group over another. That’s what symbolic violence is. It renders you powerless.

But there are resistances and resiliencies. The joking around. That’s the bit I feel really proud of, actually. The way that we laugh.

In London I see a positive. People are fighting back here. We need to build some sort of solidarity amongst people. Everybody needs to say, “this is not right”. People living in council estates in Nottingham and not being able to feed their children is not right, and we don’t want that. People living in London being evicted from the homes so higher income people can live there is not right, we’re not having it. If there’s one message that needs to come out of this it’s: none of this is right. If we just take the time to stop thinking about our own individual problems, we see how we’re connected to each other.

I see that in London. There is a solidarity being built around the housing movement. But perhaps with all these starter homes the Conservatives are going to build, that will get rid of class solidarity because the middle class will be able to get mortgages again. They will do anything to get those mortgages. They will forget very quickly about the people will below them. Getting on the property ladder rather than fighting the inequalities of housing will start to be their priority.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

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