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  • What really happened in the East End?

    by Sunny
    27th April, 2007 at 9:19 am    

    PP reader Halima points to a very interesting article. Last year the book ‘The New East End: Kinship, Race and Conflict’ was published to much fanfare.

    It reflected some of the preoccupations of Family and Kinship, attempting to trace the impact of government policy and its unintended consequences on communities.

    It controversially argued that administration of local housing policy had benefited Bangladeshis, leaving the white working class resentful and had contributed to the rise of racism in Tower Hamlets through the 80s and 90s. Trevor Phillips, then chair of the Commission for Racial Equality and now head of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, declared the book, “one of the most important I’ve read for a long time”.

    Except that this wasn’t the whole picture.

    Earlier this month, a bitter meeting at the British Sociological Association aired some of the fury. The criticism of sociologists is vociferous. They argue it is “incompetent”, lacking any academic rigour and more about opinionated polemic than evidence. But this is more than an academic spat. People at the heart of the housing battles of Tower Hamlets in the 80s - residents, campaigners and housing officers - are equally perturbed. They argue it omits crucial elements of the wider picture; that it goes beyond explaining white racism to justifying it.

    “My report in 1994 showed how the council didn’t apply need and repeatedly discriminated against Bangladeshis in favour of whites. The reality is the opposite of what they claimed,” said Adams, adding that repeated investigations in the 80s and early 90s uncovered evidence of systematic discrimination in housing policy against Bangladeshis.

    “What they omit is that there was some joint action … they also omit the fact that there was a very high level of racial violence on the streets. Even if all the housing problems had been solved, the racism would still need to have been tackled - there’s a long history of it in the East End with anti-semitism and anti-Irish sentiment.”

    This from a report in Society Guardian last week. Isn’t that interesting? The book, which said Bangladeshis in the East End got it easy misrepresented the whole truth, ignoring the racism and prejudice they faced in getting housing. More interesting points:

    Bangladeshis are depicted as largely passive recipients of a middle-class “do-good” type of welfare generosity, but researchers argue this erases the struggle of a generation of small Bangladeshi groups who campaigned for racial justice.

    It dangerously explains racism away by blaming welfare policy, and thus unintentionally both exonerates racism and undermines the importance of need in allocating welfare.

    Read the whole article [hat tip: Halima]
    Update: 5CC has more intelligent commentary on this.

    Update 2: PP commenter Halima has a letter in the Guardian on this.

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    Filed in: Race politics

    22 Comments below   |  

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    1. soru — on 27th April, 2007 at 10:32 am  

      My report in 1994 showed how the council didn’t apply need and repeatedly discriminated against Bangladeshis in favour of whites. The reality is the opposite of what they claimed,” said Adams, adding that repeated investigations in the 80s and early 90s uncovered evidence of systematic discrimination in housing policy against Bangladeshis

      I think that pretty much supports the thesis - you don’t get repeated investigations and reports if there was no policy change, no conflict of interests and principles.

      When he says there were instances of ‘need’ not being applied, that acknowledges that ‘need’ was the policy, and that that was controversial, a change from previous practise. When he says ‘discrimination’, he is using that to label the way things used to be done, community-status based not technocratic individualism.

    2. brachyury — on 27th April, 2007 at 12:14 pm  

      The thesis of the book is not that the council were more sympathetic to Bangladeshis, or that Bangladeshis didn’t face racism.

      Rather it is that the criteria for housing on the basis of the “most needy” led to the poorest incomers being housed whilst existing residents were not.

      The sociologist is not disputing that this was the policy as far as I can tell- but seems to suggest that it was not applied and this actually constituted discrimination against Bangladeshis. However given that the Bangladeshi pop. grew from 10,000 (1981) to 37,000 (1991) and 65,000 (2001)(33% of TH) I find his claim surprising. There are no clear housing figures by ethnicity but I am guessing most of these people were not moving into swanky new city pads and that this pop increase cannot be explained by births.

      This aside I think you can argue succesfully that the “most needy” policy was not discriminatory — just fair. I agree to an extent with that- but racial issues and immigration aside I think the policy was flawed. In Glasgow where I am from people resented, single mothers, junkies, etc.. who got council flats (exagerrated I think). Adding people coming from outside just adds another dimension.

      The lesson is not about race I think but about how difficult it is to sustain a welfare system in which most people believe that entitlements are earned through either your own contributions or those of your parents. The notion of a deserving and undeserving poor has resonance across all classes and most cultures (in my experience). Im guessing race adds to the problem but we should ignore it and look at the underlying cause when trying to solve this problem.

    3. Arif — on 27th April, 2007 at 12:44 pm  

      My impression was that in the early 80s, Mayor Ken made building new council housing a priority and funded the kinds of groups that challenged discriminatory practices by local councils/council officers (which this book seems to argue was lamentably successful).

      But then there were central govt policies, such as selling council houses and not allowing the funds raised to be used to build new council housing, alongside abolition of the GLC, and a boom which went bust in a spiral of high interest rates etc. Maybe they contributed to more housing needs from time to time.

      Now things should be a lot easier politically and economically, but building “affordable” housing and any council housing still seems too dificult, despite Mayor Ken again using whatever planning powers he has to make it possible. The security of tenure in a Council property is giving way to all sorts of other considerations and forms of social ownership. Maybe developers find brownfield building too expensive, and planners find the right sites difficult to identify. Maybe the right Government policies are not in place, because the Government wants the public sector to shrink.

      Not getting housing for their growing families from the Council always seems to be a huge driver of grievances for a lot of people I talk to, and blaming immigrants does seem to come more naturally to them. It seems there is an acceptance that new housing can’t/won’t be built by the the local council, that central government probably won’t keep imigrants out, but that the local Council can somehow respond to their idea of local needs by ignoring the needs of immigrants, leaving them to live on the streets and lose any incentive to exist thereby solving the housing problem to the satisfaction of “locals”. Only the desperate or evil would be so heartless, unless they can imagine that immigrants would be okay if only they do something or go somewhere else. In my experience, no one can explain to me what that nice somewhere else is, I assume if it existed they would have used that option themselves.

      Now, I’m obviously not doing a sociological study. I’m sharing anecdotal knowledge. I would hope a sociological study would add something to my understanding, however the way the book is being presented is that it uncritically describes the prejudices I hear all the time anyway. Does it even try to get the perspectives of the Bangladeshi East Enders to add to our understanding?

    4. brachyury — on 27th April, 2007 at 1:13 pm  

      I resent the notion that I am “desperate or evil” because I think that social housing should be targeted at existing residents as opposed to new arrivals. When there is a limited supply any policy is tough (or “heartless”) to someone.
      In any case there is so little social housing now it seems like a problem in the past.

    5. sonia — on 27th April, 2007 at 1:43 pm  

      brachyury makes good points. this is all about how the welfare system hasn’t been working and the results we’re seeing is people blaming each other for problems to do with the system and looking for scapegoats - each lot see themselves as a unit and see the other as the problem.

    6. sonia — on 27th April, 2007 at 1:46 pm  

      competing rather than collaborating - is the issue here. if people feel they are competing for scarce resources - which effectively is what the situation has been - then its not surprising group lines and divisions emerge.

      instead of seeing this overall dynamic as the problem - of which the others are a subset of, people seem to want to focus on the ‘groups’ themselves -who was black who wasn’t who was white etc.

    7. Kismet Hardy — on 27th April, 2007 at 2:21 pm  

      In the play East by Stephen Berkoff the yob finally realises he has a heart. That’s how East ends…


    8. Boyo — on 27th April, 2007 at 4:08 pm  

      Sounds like the folk responsible for implementing the policy are simply hitting back.

      There’s no doubt in my mind the “most needy” policy fractured the settled communities. Clearly it would - someone who came to the UK with nothing was much more likely to be more “in need” than someone already here. It’s neither the whites or newcomer’s fault. Neither made the policy.

      However the people who created it failed by not taking account of the effect on the settled community. If they had (ie, developed a more balanced approach - points system maybe?!) then there would be less of a problem. Ok, maybe less council homes would have gone to Bangladeshis, but heavens - they came to the UK to build their lives, not take hand-outs!

    9. Boyo — on 27th April, 2007 at 4:12 pm  

      Oh, and one more thing. Speaking as a white just one generation removed from a London council home, I have to say I suspect their disregard for the concerns of the white Eastenders was mostly about class prejudice, the racism their divisive policies promoting simply confirming this prejudice. I despise them (the middle class “do-gooders”) I really do. For all their excesses, these people withstood the Blitz and what thanks do they get? Fractured communities and contempt.

    10. Katherine — on 27th April, 2007 at 4:18 pm  

      I heard a theory from somewhere that a lot of resentment from “locals” about housing policy was based on a misconception - i.e. that the council owned the houses that immigrants were being housed in.

      Obviously, a great deal of council housing stock has been sold in the last decade or so - much of it to housing associations and other non-profit-making organisations.

      If such organisations targetted the immigrant population in their criteria for housing need, it starts to look, to people who are just looking on the surface and don’t know the detail, as if immigrants are getting first dibs on council housing. This was often not in fact the case.

    11. A Councillor writes — on 27th April, 2007 at 5:09 pm  

      It is quite often the case that immigrant families have higher multiple housing needs (which is the standard by which housing is allocated by local authorities) and therefore can gain places that locals feel are theirs by divine right. Whilst it is right that those in the most need should get social housing, it has left a bad taste in the mouths of many original estate dwellers.

      For instance, one of my estates borders a majority BME area and therefore is very high on the choice of new BME tenants with high levels of multiple housing needs. However, the estate is also sufficently mature that the original tenants children are now of an age where they seek a solution for their housing needs. They (and their parents) see it as wrong that they cannot get an empty property on that estate for their children and that it will go to an outsider.

      Personally, I feel very conflicted by this issue, I can see both sides of the equation and I feel the only answer is to allow a small percentage of “Local Lettings” in the name of community cohesion. The problem with this is that such policies have proved to be disasterously racist when previously tried (and I believe that Tower Hamlets was an authority that tried this at some point).

      Btw, in my area, the vast majority of Registered Social Landlords (which is local government speak for housing associations and their ilk) take the majority of their allocations direct from the local authority, who allocate by need. Don’t start me on RSL’s…

      Most housing allocation policy by a local authority is determined by the Government, there isn’t much leeway around it these days. Other parts are determined by Mr Justice Cocklecarrot and his friends, whose ideas of reality are somewhat skewed.

      Of course, the government could help us by abolishing (or at least allowing a suspension of the right in areas where there is the most need) Right to Buy and allowing us to build some more council homes.

    12. ZinZin — on 27th April, 2007 at 8:41 pm  

      what are multiple housing needs? I ask because I would like to know how council housing is allocated under this system.

    13. Halima — on 27th April, 2007 at 10:37 pm  


      Great to see you circulate and stimulate discussion on the book. I started to write something intellegent but got distracted by Eastenders at 8.00 pm this evening….Hope this isn’t too long - I keep making my own blog and forgetting what’s called.

      The first book (Young and Wilmott East End families and kinship in 1950) claimed urban planning policies are blamed for breaking up East End communities in London and specifically families and kinship. In the second book – this one - it is the issues of ‘race’, ‘racism’ and anti-racism policies pursued by the local authorities that are to blame for the troubles of the area’s white working classes. Not novel.

      I was at the annual British Sociological Conference they mention a room full of academics discussed the issues that I felt intimately connected with as it related to my childhood and squatting into our first council flat. All the academics were united in their response: the book is at best – a collection of anecdotes, mythically misinformed and at worst reveals the inexperience and unprofessionalism of authors without any method. If you know any academics you will know what a difficult feat this is – they are never united over anything!

      There is a much-needed discussion in the UK on the grievances of the white working classes. But not like this where the Bangladeshis get blamed because things aren’t working… The welfare state takes a huge battering in the book but the book blames its demise on the Bangladeshis – that’s why the BNP love the book.

      The biggest argument to emerge from the book is the needs-based welfare system is woefully inadequate. The authors are in fact long standing friends of the left and its multiculturalism.

      I won’t go into inaccuracies in the book except which the academics have picked apart already.

      But one that I haven’t seen highlighted so much – is the mis-representation of white people in this book. There is a dangerous betrayal of the left’s history in the East End. It denies the white working class any agency beyond racism or disquiet about housing decisions. This isn’t the East End that many people recognise in the history books stretching back the last 50 years – the time-span for the New East End. The East End is patch work of racialised interest groups – for example, Catholic Wapping, Jewish Stepney, and Lithuanian quarters.’ To further complicate things, it appears that there is no mention of the continuing writing of people living and working in the East End, people Kenneth Leach who wrote ‘Blood on the Streets: 1978’ a testimony of the daily violent clashes on the cusp of direct action in the late 1960s – with the National Front. In short all the white people in the East End are represented as racist or whining. Where is their agency?

    14. A Councillor writes — on 28th April, 2007 at 7:33 am  


      The law defines a number of different things as placing someone “in need of social housing” examples are overcrowding, homelessness, medical need, being discharged from care, unsuitable property, etc. Local authorities can, with a great deal of care can add to these and expand upon them, for instance, my authority currently has two overcrowding bands - one for statutory overcrowding (i.e. beyond legal limits) and one for severe overcrowding.

      These needs are allocated points or a band depending on your authority. The fact is that in any authority facing a housing crunch, you will need multiple housing needs to get a house or be someone the council has a legal duty to rehouse i.e. priority homeless, discharged from care, severe illness.

      It is fair, but you try explaining that to people who have been on the list 10 years and never had an offer.

    15. Halima — on 28th April, 2007 at 10:39 am  


      I have been on the council list or 15 years with no offer and I try and keep myself form smashing a fair system.

      But on a more serious note , councillor, you are right, it’s the fairness that upsets the people that complain. It’s terribly frustrating to wait for so long, no wonder you want to jump the queue. The UK home ownership trend is 75% and so you’d think that the 24% of social housing left would be adequate for low-income groups. But not.

      Anyway, time to plug the book that explore these issues in a more constructive way. Estates, by Leslie Hanley, mostly reflecting on housing and class in Birmingham, but the introduction is a great read to these isses.

    16. Halima — on 28th April, 2007 at 10:40 am  


    17. soru — on 28th April, 2007 at 11:14 am  

      It all sounds a bit like the way hospital waiting list used to work. If you had a non-urgent operation needing doing, like a hip replacement, you would always get bumped to the back of the queue whenever something more clinically urgent came along.

      Problem being there is always something more urgent, so you could wait pretty much forever.

      If you are stuck in a queue, a nasty person may get angry quickly, a calm one slowly, but wait long enough, and noone but a saint will not get angry, and nobody thinks straight when angry.

      I think the way they mostly got round that in hospitals was to set up dedicated treatment facilities for routine operations that never did urgent work. I wonder if something comparable would make sense for housing?

    18. Halima — on 28th April, 2007 at 11:35 am  

      I think the allocaton system is set up this way too, right? There is a quota to how many urgent cases can jump the queue - and even then the urgent cases stay waiting for a long time - sometimes as slow as the routine list.

      So both urgent waiting list and routine list is slow.

      I guess with the housing they might argue that you might be overcrowded for 10 years but at least you’re alive wheras if they don;t treat chronic illness there is a duty of care that’s more pressing.

    19. brachyury — on 28th April, 2007 at 1:43 pm  

      “I think the way they mostly got round that in hospitals was to set up dedicated treatment facilities for routine operations that never did urgent work. I wonder if something comparable would make sense for housing?”

      I’m afraid the housing equivalent is the private sector B&B. This is often very expensive and very poor quality. One has to ask the question: why sell off council housing when we are going to have to house people at extra cost in emergency B&B? or even long term housing benefit in more expensive private rental sector? Shoot self in foot- do not pass go.

    20. A Councillor writes — on 28th April, 2007 at 3:06 pm  

      Halima - Estates is a very good book, although I dislike the Blairite presumptions at the end that stock transfers are good. In my considered opinion and that of many tenants they aren’t. The Governments politics of punishment in that if you didn’t transfer your stock, you don’t get money for the Decent Homes programme is disgusting.

      Most places have something called “Management Moves” to deal with highly critical cases, but they have to audited very, very carefully.

      The presumption was that critical illness trumped overcrowding which rendered you technically homeless in your own home, but unfortunately Regina (Aweys and Others) v Birmingham City Council has rendered that a moot point, being overcrowded in your own home is now priority homelessness and therefore more critical.

      In my authority, the routine list quite frankly means that you aren’t getting a home within the foreseeable future. This, of course, has further potential long-term detrimental effects on social housing estates.

      Brachyury - precisely. The percentage of social housing tenants now dependant on Housing Benefit in my authority is now over 60% and it will get higher.

    21. Halima — on 28th April, 2007 at 3:21 pm  

      Sure - what I liked about the book wasn’t the politics or the housing history - others will know more about the accuracy but it’s one of the few books I’ve seen that talks about the white working classes in a healthy way - really in touch with growing up in estates without being sentimental ( look I’m great because I’m workign class and I made it out ) or patronising ( aren’t these poor people on the estates resilient but lack ambition, it’s their parents fault for not getting out of the cycle of poverty..) It’s one of the more emphatic writings on working class life I’ve seen in a while. The last might’ve been Jeanette Winterson but then she started writing complicated books.

    22. brachyury — on 30th April, 2007 at 10:05 am  

      “Brachyury - precisely. The percentage of social housing tenants now dependant on Housing Benefit in my authority is now over 60% and it will get higher.”

      Why did we sell of council housing?

      1)I think the tories wanted to bribe tenants to vote tory.
      2) They thought that reducing the social housing would eventually reduce the number of socially housed.
      3) New homeowners would be esponsible citizens who took pride in their area (and see 1 maybe vote Tory).

      Well 2 was crap- they just all moved to housing benefit in private rental. I honestly dont know what policy we could use to reverse this situation.

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