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Everyday experiences of state betrayal on an English council estate

“You know, the council used to be good in them days. A council officer used to come around to collect rent and to check on everything. Now they don’t do anything for you, and nobody cares about the community anymore.” These were the words of Molly, a woman in her late sixties and a resident on a large council estate in post-industrial England.[1] I had asked Molly to tell me how “the local community had changed” and she promptly started talking about how the council had let the community down. Molly’s words echoed those of many other residents who, when asked about the changes that had taken place, would speak about how the authorities, mostly the council, had abandoned the needs of local people and their estate, emphasising that they were “the forgotten estate” that “nobody was interested in”. These statements were often reinforced by claims that others – usually neighbouring council estates and towns – were the beneficiaries of preferential treatment on the part of the authorities at the expense of “local people” and “the local community”. As one resident once summed it up: “They always get everything but we get nothing”.

The narratives of abandonment and neglect articulated by the residents on the estate came as a surprise to me when I first started my fieldwork. In the classical work of British community studies, working class communities have tended to be portrayed as self-contained entities that are governed by the force of matrifocal ties and their ethics of mutual care and support alone (Firth 1956; Willmott and Young 1957; Young 1952; see also Bott 1971). The impression created in these writings is that the state appears as an alien and foreign entity that is opposed to a unitary and close-knit community – an impression which has been recycled in recent discussions on identity and class (see Alleyne 2002; Rogaly and Taylor 2009b). Yet, what I heard from council estate residents during my fieldwork brought such an image into question: clearly, they bemoaned what they considered to be a lack of sufficient state presence, expecting the state to make its services and resources more available to local people and their estate. What is more, the language of lack of “care” and “interest” deployed by residents arguably insinuated a more intimate relationship that positioned the council within the moral boundaries of local communities.

The purpose of this article is to offer an ethnographic analysis of the narratives of abandonment articulated by residents of the estate where I did research. My main argument is that, far from subscribing to a dichotomous view of “the local community” and “the state”, the residents expect the state to be involved in an on-going effort to build respectable homes and communities. This effort, in turn, is grounded in a sociality that sees persons as part of localised networks of support and care and that makes strong demands for loyalty on the local community. However, my analysis also shows that residents’ attempts to make the state part of their everyday lives remain thwarted due to changes in social housing policies which have resulted in the withdrawal of resources and services from council estates. Residents experience this as a failure on the part of the state to live up to its perceived obligations and as an intimate betrayal of their local community. Overall, in offering such an analysis, this article not only contributes to the emerging ethnographic scholarship on Britain’s post-industrial communities (Dench et. al. 2006; Edwards 2000; Evans 2006; Mollona 2009; Rogaly and Taylor 2009a) but also offers a critical commentary on the sweeping public sector cuts currently being undertaken by the UK Coalition government.

In the following, I will develop my argument with reference to council housing and housing policy. Residents often bemoan the lack of appropriate council homes and their maintenance when talking about the decline of their local community. In focusing on the case of housing, my intention is not to dismiss other areas of state policy that affect everyday life on the council estate. As the empirical literature shows, popular feelings of resentment are also generated in people’s interactions with schools (Rhodes 2010), the welfare bureaucracy (Rogaly and Taylor 2009a) and the police (Back and Keith 1999). Indeed, as I argue elsewhere (2013a), if considered from residents’ own understandings of the state, it makes little sense to treat different areas of state policy as if they were independent and clearly delineable domains. Having said that, I have limited the following analysis to the case of housing for two reasons. First, council housing is an area of social policy where the impact of neo-liberal changes has been strongly felt. As Forrest and Murie (1991) have pointed out, unlike most other areas of post-war social policy that were universal in scope, council housing was always intended specifically for the working classes. Second, it is also an area of policy which implicates people’s own attempts to build and to maintain communities and homes, thereby offering a fruitful site for studying processes of state vernacularisation (see also Miller 1986).

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Providing Housing for the Working Classes

When the British welfare state was first established in the aftermath of the Second World War, social housing was endorsed as one of its major pillars. Up until then, the provision of state-sponsored housing had been very limited: while local authorities had been providing social housing for the working class since the late 19th century, a prevailing laissez faire ideology meant that the state was reluctant to intervene in society’s basic social needs. As a consequence, the pre-war social housing programme had been ad hoc, leaving it largely to factory owners and philanthropists to provide purpose-built housing to working class people (Burney 1999). By contrast, the emerging post-war welfare state was founded on a new settlement between capital and labour – one which emphasised the need to protect all working citizens from the most extreme consequences of capitalism. Alongside the establishment of the NHS, free education and a comprehensive social security system, local authorities started to build mass council housing often in the form of separate neighbourhoods and in the direct vicinity of factories. Working class people were moved under slum clearance schemes from the old industrial neighbourhoods into the newly built houses which tended to be spacious and of relatively high quality. On the ground, the post-war system institutionalised a housing allocation system that favoured the wage-earning working classes, often at the exclusion of more vulnerable and poorer tenants (Ravetz 2001).

With the shift towards industrial decline and the deregulation of Britain’s economy in the late 1970s, however, a new neo-liberal welfare rhetoric began to take hold. This was a rhetoric which emphasised the need to roll back the boundaries of the welfare state, whilst encouraging an ethics of individual responsibility and self-help (Harvey 2001). From the late 1970s onwards, this rhetoric led to substantive changes in social housing policy. For a start, if post-war policy had been premised on the provision of mass housing, the introduction of the “right to buy” under the Thatcher government gave sitting tenants the right to purchase their council houses below market value. This quickly resulted in the privatisation of social housing and a radical reduction of the available council housing stock. Moreover, there was also a shift in housing allocation policy. Unlike the post-war system that prioritised the wage-earning working class nuclear family, new laws from the late 1970s onwards imposed statutory duties on local authorities to prioritise the poorest individuals as their main tenants, including the homeless, the unemployed and so-called single parents. These tended to be offered housing in less desirable “social housing” properties that had come to replace the post-war housing. The combined impact of these processes has been to change the composition of council housing tenants dramatically and to turn estates with a high proportion of social tenancies into “dumping grounds” for society’s poor (Hanley 2007; MacKenzie 2013).[2]

On the ground, these shifts towards neo-liberal housing policies have been manifest in a steady withdrawal of state resources and services from council estates. The estate where I conducted my fieldwork – a large one of nearly 13,000 residents of mainly white British origin and a minority of Afro-Caribbean descent – is exemplary in this respect. Situated in the outlying area of a middle-sized town in England, it was built in the post-war years to offer accommodation for the workers of a nearby car factory. The workers were offered generously sized and good quality terraced homes. A paternalistic system of rent management furthermore ensured that face-to-face contact with local state officials was frequent. With the shift in policies over the last three decades or so, however, this has changed. Some residents have been able to buy their council houses, resulting in nearly 50 per cent private ownership on the estate today. By contrast, the vast majority of social housing tenants (i.e. those from seriously disadvantaged backgrounds) have been forced into the less desirable properties that were built from the late 1960s onwards, including two prominent tower blocks in the centre of the estate, a number of maisonettes and blocks of flats. In addition to problems of unemployment, welfare dependence and high crime rates, these social tenants have to deal with a vast bureaucratic machinery when they want to report faults with their houses or the rental system.

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In recent ethnographic scholarship, authors have begun to investigate the effects that these processes of state withdrawal have had on the residents of Britain’s post-industrial communities (Dench et. al. 2006; Evans 2012; Mollona 2009; Rogaly and Taylor 2009a). A central theme that emerges from these writings is the importance of looking beyond the material effects of state withdrawal: people frame these changes in terms of intimate narratives of state abandonment. In the remainder of this article, I will offer an analysis of such narratives and in so doing advance an argument about the nature of state-citizen relations more generally. Starting from the premise that, in Miller’s words (1986), residents “appropriate the state on the council estate”, I argue that the residents on the post-war council estates did not see the state as a foreign or imposed entity: rather, they co-opted it into local efforts to create respectable homes and communities. While such an endeavour was facilitated by the paternalistic nature of post-war housing policies, I argue that the shift to neo-liberal policies has made it increasingly difficult for residents to hold the state to its perceived duties. This, in turn, is experienced as a betrayal of local people and their community which is articulated in narratives of abandonment and neglect. I will develop these suggestions by first returning to an analysis of the post-war decade before looking at the impact of neo-liberal policy changes on the estates today.

Appropriating the State on the Council Estate

The relocation of working class people from the old industrial neighbourhoods onto the newly built council estates was a topic of much empirical interest to sociologists in the decades after the war (Harrell-Bond 1967; Kuper 1953; Mogey 1956; Willmott and Young 1957). A central theme that emerged from these writings was the argument that these mass relocations, often carried out under slum clearance schemes, had engendered a shift from a “neighbourhood-centred society” to a “family-centred” one: the move into the alien and foreign surroundings of the newly built estate was said to have resulted in the loss of community spirit and its replacement by a more private lifestyle that was centred around efforts to create respectable nuclear family homes. These tended to be enacted along gendered lines, with women spending much of their time cleaning and tidying the house and men pursuing work in the gardens and allotments. In focusing on such narratives of community decline, the early literature started from a particular view of the “authentic” working class community which took the old industrial neighbourhoods as its point of departure. This was a view which not only placed kinship relations at its centre but also constructed the working class neighbourhood as a self-contained entity that was opposed to, and independent from, outside influences, including the modern state.

However, in using the old industrial neighbourhoods as their normative backdrop, the post-war writing also tended to overlook how the residents recreated local communities along creative and flexible lines. Thus, while early empirical evidence shows that many residents did indeed suffer from isolation and loneliness when first moved out of the old working class neighbourhoods, the pursuit of respectable family homes on the new estates was not intended as a private endeavour. For example, as Evans (2012) has shown in her study of Bermondsey, it was precisely through practices of cleaning that the “standards for communal living” were created and relations with neighbours formed. What is more, local residents also co-opted local state officials into these efforts to build respectable communities. Rogaly and Taylor found in their study of a council estate in Norwich that “working class tenants expanded their existing support networks to include officials in their range of strategies for accessing the services of the welfare state and for managing neighbour problems” (2009a: 120). Thus, local residents frequently relied upon local state figures to enforce collective standards of tidiness and called upon their help when confronted with “rough” neighbours. Molly, a resident in her late sixties, recalled this in the following words: “We used to have a rent collector. He used to check that everyone had done their gardening and if they hadn’t, he would tell you off. And it made people look after their community.”

The appropriation of local state officials and resources into the emerging estate communities was facilitated by the existence of paternalistic housing policies that allowed for a fragile moral union to take hold between residents and the post-war welfare state. The provision of high quality council housing coincided with residents’ own aspirations for respectable living and a “house of one’s own” – aspirations which had become increasingly prominent since the turn of the century (Langhamer 2005). What is more, the selective allocation policies that prioritised the wage-earning working class family were compatible with residents’ own emphasis upon policing the moral boundaries of their communities. As one resident was quoted by Mogey on a post-war Oxford estate: “There’s nobody in these houses who isn’t nice. If somebody who wasn’t – well you know – and they had to be given a house, they wouldn’t put them around here: they’d give them a house on another part of the estate” (1956: 23). Finally, residents’ attempts to draw the state into their daily lives were further facilitated through the existence of a face-to-face system of rent management with local officials. In oral history interviews, people often fondly recalled the existence of the rent collector and the presence of local state buildings on the estate, including key worker housing for the police and council cabins where residents could go to speak to a council official. As one older woman said to me: “They used to be good in them days, they cared for the community. Now nobody comes to check up anymore, and people don’t care”.

Finally, I should emphasise that to speak of a moral union is not to deny the power inequalities that structured residents’ relations with the state. To do so would mean to ignore the legacy of state control that was carried over from Victorian times into the post-war welfare state (Skeggs 1997). Indeed, there is ample evidence that relations with the state were far from amicable all the time: Rogaly and Taylor (2009a), for instance, write of the bitterness that some residents felt when confronted with the unannounced visit of local council officials, whilst the anthropologist Harrell-Bond (1967) found on a post-war Oxford estate that many young women resented the “advice” that health workers would offer them: they told her that they would speak to their mothers but not health officials if in need of advice relating to their own children. Notwithstanding these tensions, and the feelings of suspicion that they revealed, however, I would suggest that the post-war policies were conducive for a mutually compatible union between local residents and the emerging welfare state. Bearing this in mind, I will now turn to an analysis of how the post-war consensus broke down with the shift towards neo-liberal policies in the late 1970s. This takes us to an ethnographic assessment of state-resident relations on the council estate today.

Narratives of State Betrayal

It was Remembrance Day in November 2011 – the day Britain commemorates its fallen soldiers – and a cold and rainy Sunday morning. I was sitting with Mark, a local resident, a bus driver and a proud father of four in the living room of his council house. We were watching TV when suddenly there was a knock on the front door. Surprised about the unannounced visitor, Mark got up and opened the door. It was a young man in his late twenties, and like Mark and most other residents on the estate, he was white and English. He did not introduce himself but a short look at the leaflets that he was holding out to Mark revealed who he was: an activist for the British National Party (BNP), Britain’s far-right political party.[3] Mark took one of the leaflets and closed the door. Turning his attention to the leaflet, he read out its headline: “‘Putting British People First’”. He fell silent for a few moments before he suddenly repeated with a voice that had become agitated: “‘Putting British People First!’ Damn right that is, they should put us first. But they don’t care about us, we always get forgotten!” He then proceeded to dump the leaflet in the bin. Would he vote for the BNP? I asked him, knowing that, unlike in other post-industrial neighbourhoods (e.g. Rhodes 2009; 2010), the party had never stood for local elections on the estate. “No, I would never vote for anyone. They are just as bad as all the others”, he said briefly.

Interestingly, Mark’s outburst, prompted here by a BNP leaflet, was typical of how people reacted when asked about the local council on the estate: people would tell me that they felt “forgotten”, “abandoned” and “left out” by “Them”. I suggest that these reactions were expressive of a betrayal that pertained to the state’s failure to adhere to its obligations towards local residents and their community. Now, in developing this argument, it is useful to make a comparison with the post-war council estates: we saw above that the post-war residents were engaged in a collaborative effort to create respectable communities. On the estate today, people’s sense of community remained strong. Over the decades, generations of kin had clustered together on the estate, and relations between neighbours and fellow residents had been developed that often took the form of fictive kin ties. An ethics of loyalty prevailed which was often expressed in a strong attachment to one’s local neighbourhood and place (see also Degnen 2006; Edwards 2000; Evans 2012). Moreover, residents expected local state officials and the council to be part of these local communities and to adhere to its demands for loyalty and attachment. As I show elsewhere (Koch 2013a), residents routinely tried to bring local state officials, including council officers and politicians, into their networks of exchange and expected the state to channel its resources and services to the “local community” or “the estate”.

However, residents’ expectations of the state remained all too frequently unsatisfied. If we saw above that people’s efforts to appropriate the state into their own local communities had been facilitated in the post-war years through the workings of a paternalistic welfare state, then the withdrawal of state services and resources with the shift to neo-liberal policies had largely undermined such efforts. For instance, many residents found that their aspirations for respectable homes were thwarted by the lack of adequate and good quality council housing. Dean, a local resident in his fifties, once commented on the lack of adequate noise insulation, in his small two bedroom council flat: “You can hear everything, it’s like you’re sharing a house with your neighbours. They used to build good council houses but now they don’t care anymore”. Moreover, and as analysed in depth by others (Dench et. al. 2006; Evans 2012), the shift to needs-based allocation policies had resulted in a situation where local residents saw council houses being given to outsiders who met the government criteria of “need” as opposed to local people who had proven their worth through local residence and commitment to the community. Finally, too, many residents complained about the anonymous bureaucratic machinery that they were confronted with and which required them to travel often long distances into town when seeking help from a council official: this was particularly evident in the oral history interviews during which elderly residents nostalgically recalled the personalised system of the post-war years.

In a situation where demands for loyalty were strong, this failure on the part of the state to provide for the needs of local people was experienced as a betrayal. Residents expressed this betrayal when contrasting their own efforts to be good members of the community with the state’s failure to take care of them. Here is for instance Kate, a mother of two who had waited for her council flat for over ten years: “I was brought up here and I’ve always done my bit for the community. They are failing us”. Others expressed the betrayal in terms of a language of abandonment and loss, lamenting, as we saw earlier, that nobody cared about them. Yet others again made comparisons with neighbouring towns or council estates which were always considered to be the privileged beneficiaries of treatment. Here is for instance Tony, an elderly man who was managing a community centre at the time of my fieldwork: “This estate is always forgotten. Other estates, they always get everything; new houses, a new community centre, new roads. We get nothing. They don’t care about us; if they could, they would have us gone”. Older residents in particular often had elaborate memories of events in the past when the authorities had let them down – memories which proved that theirs was “the forgotten estate”.

Finally, as we saw in Mark’s reaction to my question about voting above, exposure to state betrayal had far reaching implications for electoral politics, more generally. Many people saw politicians and political parties as part of the world of “Them” that had conspired against local people and their communities, emphasising that politicians are “the crux of all evil”, “criminals” and “blood suckers”. As I have shown elsewhere (Koch 2013a), with the exception of modest electoral support that residents lent to local politicians who had “earned” their respect by proving their loyalty to the local estate, most residents had withdrawn from electoral participation: “Why should I vote?”, Lindsey, a local resident in her late thirties once said to me angrily, “they are all just a bunch of liars!”. Yet others had turned increasingly to far-right politics, albeit not on the estate where I worked and where the BNP has never stood for elections. As authors have shown in other post-industrial communities (Evans 2012; Rhodes 2009; 2010; Back and Keith 1999), at a time when working class people feel that the state has abandoned its moral duties towards local communities, the rhetoric of paternalistic care and racialised victimhood deployed by the BNP offers a potentially powerful message that resonates with people’s local concerns. One male resident in his late forties put it once in the following words: “They may not get it right all of the time, but they get it right some of the time and at least they listen to people like us”.


In recent writing on the post-colonial state, anthropologists have paid attention to how the state is experienced and appropriated from below (Alexander 2000; Bear 2007; Fuller and Benei 2001; Long 2013; Navaro-Yashin 2002; Spencer 1997). What these anthropologists have shown us is that far from being neutral processes, everyday encounters with the state often incite intimate affects and imaginaries on the ground. Taking such an approach from the context of the post-colonial state to the setting of a so-called liberal democracy itself, this article has offered an ethnographic assessment of state-citizen relations on a council estate in post-industrial England. My main argument has been that for the residents, the state is not just an alien or imposed entity that operates outside of everyday life on the estate. Rather, the residents co-opt the local council into their own local efforts to create and to maintain the moral boundaries of estate communities. However, my analysis has also shown that residents’ attempts to do so remain thwarted due to the steady withdrawal of state resources and services from working class communities. This, in turn, generates intimate feelings of abandonment and neglect which become articulated in sustained narratives of victimhood. Overall, then, this article contributes to the emerging scholarship on state-citizen relations in British working class communities.

Acknowledging the more intimate dimensions of state-citizen relations is not just a matter of academic expediency. Rather, at a time when the UK government is in the process of implementing the largest cuts in the history of the post-war welfare state, this paper also offers a critical commentary on the Coalition’s drastic public welfare cuts. Much of the critical analysis surrounding these cuts has focused on their material effects, emphasising how neo-liberal reforms further increase inequities between the wealthy and the poor and push the latter to the brink of survival. While these arguments are important, this paper has emphasised the need to recognise the more hidden and intimate effects of the welfare cuts: far from just amounting to a material affront, for many of the most marginalised citizens in the country, they also constitute a betrayal of the state’s obligations towards working class communities. It is by recording these narratives of betrayal that we can not only advance a more nuanced critique of current welfare developments but also begin to understand some of the more violent and alienating reactions that they have started to engender from below – including popular withdrawal from electoral politics; the recent riots in 2012; as well as the re-emergence of popular support for far-right parties such as the BNP.


I am grateful to the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the German National Academic Foundation for funding this research. Many thanks also to Charles Stafford and to Tom Grisaffi for their very helpful feedback on an earlier draft of this paper. Thank you to all the residents who spoke with me and who welcomed me into their homes.


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  1. [1]As explained in further detail in the text, council estates are housing developments which were originally built and owned by the state for purposes of providing accommodation to working class people. I have anonymised the council estate where I conducted my fieldwork for reasons of confidentiality.
  2. [2]It should also be mentioned that the shift towards neo-liberal policies has been further exacerbated under the current Coalition government’s wide-ranging welfare reforms which have included the controversial ‘bedroom tax’ that was introduced in April 2013 (Koch 2013b).
  3. [3]The BNP is a far-right political party which was formed in 1982 following a split in the National Front. Recent years have seen a revival in support for the party in local elections, largely in post-industrial working class communities.

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