Last week’s post looked at the origins of the Meadow Well Estate and concluded these weren’t an adequate explanation either of its long-term stigma or the 1991 riots. This week’s examines what followed.
If Meadow Well became the classic ‘problem estate’, this wasn’t apparent until the 1970s. It had, however, been long neglected. Belatedly, a £5.3m programme of modernisation began in 1971 which saw some general upgrading and the conversion of some of the Estate’s flats into self-contained houses. By 1974, the proportion of flats on the Estate stood at 74 per cent, down from the 84 per cent of the original design.
However well-meaning, the improvements exacerbated the problem of overcrowding on the Estate – eleven per cent of households were assessed overcrowded (compared to a Tynemouth average of two per cent) and large families predominated on the Estate, as they had from the outset. In 1971, 35 per cent of its population were children, 14 years old or younger. When looking at the Brandon Estate in Southwark, this preponderance of youngsters (in fact, a slightly lower proportion) was held by some to be in itself a sufficient explanation of the Estate’s problems. (1)
Meadow Well also suffered severe social disadvantage – or let’s just call it poverty. Almost 60 per cent of heads of household were classified unskilled or semi-skilled, twice the Tynemouth average; male unemployment stood at 19 per cent, almost three times the North Tyneside average. These figures would deteriorate as deindustrialisation hit the North-East with particular force in the 1980s. By 1991, it was said that on some streets four fifths of residents lacked work; youth unemployment rocketed.
At the same time, spending cuts – imposed by a Conservative government which deemed the Metropolitan Borough of North Tyneside (formed in 1974) to have overspent – hit the Estate hard. The youth centre – burnt down during the riots, its destruction taken as a mark of their mindless violence – had been closed for ten months to save money; that perhaps a mark of another form of mindless violence. The adjacent Royal Quays development, billed as a commercial revitalisation of the area, offered little to local residents other than a symbol of exclusion.
To Beatrix Campbell, Meadow Well was ‘one of the demonised domains of the North East. It was a thrown-away place, imagined akin to Botany Bay, a place to which folks had been transported’. Joe Caffrey, a local community worker described a ‘feeling of abandonment…people do believe, they genuinely believe, they’ve been abandoned by government, by local government, by the police and by other agencies’. (2)
In this context, crime rose. In the words of Andy Dumble, a Meadow Well youth worker, there was:
No hope, no future – the opportunities to make it ain’t there, you’ve got to struggle really hard and the rewards are relatively small and young’uns can see that and they weigh it up against all the moral rules and that and they think, yeah, break it.
In the years preceding the riots, crime rates on the Estate were said to be the highest in the country. Across its range, this criminality – from harassment and vandalism to burglary, car-jacking and ram-raiding – had its reasons, even its reason. To some, it was a conscious kicking against the pricks; to others, it was part of a street culture led by older youngsters who were role models in the absence of others; to others still, it was a more or less legitimate way of getting by, earning some kind of living.
This was part of the anger felt when two young men of the Estate were killed in a stolen car during a police pursuit in September 1991, the trigger of the riots; they were going about their business. But it exploded in the context of a deep antipathy felt towards – and allegedly reciprocated by – the police. Nancy Peters captured the latter: ‘They class us as rubbish, the police did at one time…we were called everything’. ‘Pigsville’, the name for the Estate at the local police station, was perhaps the least of it. (3)
To a young local male, the rioting was:
inevitable because of the harassment and the way the police were doing things – they weren’t going about it legally, they were doing it by their law, not the land’s law.
Of course, there’s an irony there and this liberal understanding of causes and dynamics might be viewed as too understanding by many of the Estate’s law-abiding residents, always the majority.
The women, in particular, were always found in the forefront of efforts to defend and serve the community. Mass unemployment meant, in the words of Beatrix Campbell, that for men ‘their licensed means of episodic escape – waged work – was withdrawn. They were stuck at home. The lads, on the other hand, stuck to the streets’. Her conclusion?
Crime and coercion are sustained by men. Solidarity and self-help are sustained by women. It is as stark as that.
Campbell’s feminist analysis is powerful but, for all her acknowledgement of context, there seems a slippage in her writing here – it becomes reductive and what stands as description slides into too simple explanation. The women of the Estate were often more sympathetic: the men, they said, were ‘in a deep depression…they’ve sunk into a hole’; the kids gone wrong? – ‘who knows how those kids feel…to kick against this world, to feel so angry, so bitter’.
Beyond this, Campbell – whose study also examined Scotswood in Newcastle, the Ely Estate in Cardiff and Oxford’s Blackbird Leys Estate where riots took place at the same time – also concluded that estates themselves had become part of the problem:
Estates were once the ordinary manifestation of modernity. The agency was the municipality and mass housing was the form in which later modernism rearranged the landscape of most British cities. Those were the days when working-class homesteads dominated the housing market, before and after the Second World War, when estate cultures held the rough and respectable in eternal and exhilarating tension. But those days were to disappear with the ascent of Thatcherism and the decline of public housing as popular housing.
In this perspective, the nature of estates (their separation and distinctness), while to some degree a result of the more recent economic and political shifts she describes, was also a cause of their problems.
The fact of ‘residualisation’ – that, after the 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act and Right to Buy’s diminution of stock, council housing became increasingly allocated to our most vulnerable citizens – gives some credibility to this charge but it’s too sweeping and does scant justice to internal complexities and the decent ‘ordinariness’ of most estates and most communities. (4)
It captured a moment, though, and it reflected (and reinforced) a popular and media narrative which has powerfully shaped housing policy ever since, most malignantly under the present Conservative government.
We should get back to Meadow Well. Whatever the analysis of their causes, the riots did at least persuade those in power that ‘something should be done’. There had been earlier interventions on the Estate. A Home Office Community Development Project ran between 1972 and 1977. The Cedarwood Trust – still doing good work – was a pastoral organisation established by local people, the Church of England and North Tyneside Council in 1980.
Big money came in after 1991 in the shape, firstly, of the North Tyneside City Challenge project running from 1992 to 1998 which received £37.5m of central government funding, spent mainly on Meadow Well and the former pit village of Percy Main. The Meadow Well Single Regeneration Budget board supervised local regeneration expenditure between 1995 and 2000 – an estimated £15m from central government, £11m from other public funds and £11.6m from private sources.
Typically, much of this was spent on reconfiguring the Estate. There was improved landscaping and fencing to enhance the environment and develop ‘defensible space’ – and CCTV, of course. There was a successful attempt to improve police-community relations by bringing sympathetic officers onto the Estate.
And, though in Meadow Well the decision was taken to preserve the existing council housing, there was the usual attempt to socially engineer the Estate through changing its mix of housing tenure. By 2000, around 750 homes had been demolished with new houses built for sale or rent – around 170 privately-owned homes and 370 housing association. (5)
More meaningfully, there were the doughty efforts of local community leaders – nearly all female – to provide services and restore pride in the Estate. Carole Bell, who suffered initial hostility and harassment through her cooperation with local authorities, was a mainstay of Meadow Well Connected founded in 1994 – a comprehensive community facility at the heart of the Estate. (6) Nancy Peters was feisty and indefatigable in its defence. Both women were awarded MBEs, proving perhaps that the honours system isn’t irredeemably corrupt.
Perceptions were slow to change and the memory of the 1991 riots and Estate’s earlier stigma linger on. Last week’s post noted how an early (and unfair) ‘labelling’ of the Estate had contributed to its negative image before the Second World War. Recent research confirms how how powerfully ‘stigma’ remains a creation of key opinion-formers in the local economy and media irrespective of realities on the ground in Meadow Well and elsewhere. (7)
Nor, as their protagonists would be the first to admit, can the many worthwhile initiatives described alter the harsh economic realities which still shape local lives. The Chirton ward, containing Meadow Well, is among the 5 per cent most deprived in the country; around one in six adults are unemployed and – in today’s economy –many suffer irregular or precarious (and always low paid) employment.
We started this two-part post with Carole Bell’s wish that her community be thought of as ‘decent people living on a decent estate’. I’m sure that’s true, just as I’m certain that – despite all the good work that’s been done – the Estate continues to suffer unacceptable levels of poverty and exclusion. In this context, we should question less the design or concept of council estates but rather a society which tolerates such inequality in its midst.
Special thanks to Steve Conlan for providing and allowing me to use in this post and the last some of his fine images of the Estate taken in the late 1980s and early 1990s. You can see more of Steve’s work online here.
(1) North Tyneside Community Development Project (CDP), North Shields: Working-Class Politics and Housing (1977). Documents from the North Tyneside CDP can be downloaded from the website of Purdue University, Indianapolis. The full collection of CDP records are held by the Tyne and Wear Archives.
(2) Beatrix Campbell, Goliath. Britain’s Dangerous Places (1993) and Joe Caffrey interviewed in An English Estate, a Channel Four documentary from Hugh Kelly, broadcast in October 1992. Residents’ comments which follow are drawn from the latter source.
(3) Roger Graef, Jane Jacobs Public Lecture, London School of Economics: ‘Risk, Community and Safety’, 10 February 2005
(4) Campbell’s analysis is discussed in Chris Brook, Gerry Mooney, Steve Pile, Unruly Cities?: Order/Disorder (2006)
(5) Jo Dean and Annette Hastings, Challenging images. Housing estates, stigma and regeneration. The Policy Press and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2000
(7) Annette Hastings, ‘Stigma and social housing estates: Beyond pathological explanations’, Journal of Housing and the Built Environment, Vol. 19, No. 3, 2003