Austerity and Everyday Relationships in Low-to- Middle Income Families in the UK

This is a PDF of my recent presentation at the Nordic Geographers’ Meeting in Stockholm. I’m hoping to get this written up in the next few months, but in the meantime…

NGM Presentation

The paper’s abstract was as follows:

In the context of a research project which explores the experiences of austerity in a small number of ‘squeezed middle’, ‘just about managing’ (low-to-middle income) families in north east England, this paper focuses on the place of everyday relationships within and beyond the family in mediating austerity. It uses a psychosocial framing to foreground the importance, complexity and diversity of relationships in making sense of and negotiating changing socio-economic circumstances, attempting to think about and connect the psychic dynamics of families’ relationships and the social dynamics of austerity and recession, and to develop a psychosocial geography of everyday austerity. After setting out some ideas about the nature and value of relationships, the paper asks how and why relationships with family, friends, neighbours, acquaintances and wider communities have been invoked, used, challenged, remade, and imagined as families have navigated the transformations of austerity. As part of the ‘squeezed middle’, these are not families living in poverty, but they have all experienced real threats and losses in the context of austerity, redundancies, falling incomes, tightened budgets, and growing insecurities, for example. The paper explores the ways in which these shifts are connected, in families’ reflections and narrations, to the place of children and their futures in family dreams, the diverse support and demands of friends in crises, large and small, memories of earlier family lives, and everyday negotiations with partners, husbands and wives, and wider families. It seeks to map these shifting relationships, identifying the varying sites and spaces, within and beyond the family home, in which they are made and remade. In these ways, the paper connects to ongoing debates, political, popular and academic, about relationships, austerity, and neoliberalism more widely, to reflect on their diverse and complex articulations.

Thanks to Sarah Hall, John Horton and Helena Pimlott-Wilson for organising the session.

Street Play and Everyday Relationships

I spent yesterday at the play and playwork conference at Leeds Beckett University, my first play conference. I’ve been thinking more and more about play in the last year or so. Since December 2015, I’ve regularly coordinated with my neighbours to close my street for play about once a month, following the playing out model. In the last few months, I’ve started working with two other local street organisers to develop and promote opportunities for street play across North Tyneside. And in the last few weeks, I’ve realised that street play offers a fantastic opportunity to research the geographies of our everyday relationships, an idea that’s been central to my research and teaching for the last few years.

I love seeing kids play out in our street, I love the slightly subversive temporary displacement of cars, I love the chalk left on the street, often for days after we’ve been playing. But what I’m hoping to explore in my research is why adults plan street play, what they hope will happen, and what does happen, to them and their streets, as street play progresses.

From the very start of yesterday’s conference, the synergy between children playing and adult sociability was clear. Leeds’ Lord Mayor noted in her welcoming address that playing out is important not just for kids but for whole communities, as play builds relationships across diversity and difference, and as children’s presence in public space encourages – or even forces – adults to hang out outside too, watching their children, chatting with neighbours, and sometimes starting to play in their own ways too.

In the first workshop I attended, John McKendrick explored how we might make our cities and neighbourhoods play-friendly, and asked what it means for a place to be play-friendly, child-friendly or even family-friendly. What kinds of spaces do these different, if related, initiatives imagine?

The possibility of play is certainly at the heart of these visions, but so too is a broader idea of building relationships within communities, to draw people out into public spaces within their neighbourhoods, and to enable communities to develop shared identities and senses of belonging. The ‘play rhetorics‘ developed by Brian Sutton-Smith and cited by John might be augmented by an idea of play as relationships, as a catalyst for connection, friendship, recognition and community.

This is an idea at the heart of street play, and of my experiences of and hopes for playing out in my street and elsewhere. It is also one recognised by Helen Forman in her contribution to the conference’s street play workshop. Reflecting on the kinds of residential spaces that encourage and enable play, Helen reported that most research on the topic documents an improvement in adult ‘hanging out’ and sociability in places where children play outside.

Play is clearly at the heart of street play. This is a movement that is about kids playing out, but it is also about an idea of our streets and neighbourhoods as spaces that enable and reflect lively, hopeful, ordinary, everyday relationships. We can perhaps re-imagine play-friendly, child-friendly and family-friendly streets as relationship-friendly, streets that help us make and sustain connections which enable us to feel recognised, known, at home. It is these ideas that I’m hoping to explore, using ideas not only from literatures on play, children’s geographies, and communities, but also from theorisations of relationships, especially those which are part of and inspired by Donald Winnicott (for whom play itself was extraordinarily important) and the British object relations school. These thinkers imagine, in different ways, that our relationships, with intimate and imagined others, create the environment within which we find ways of going on being. This is the start of the idea that I hope to work with to explore and understand street play and everyday relationships.

Recruiting interviewees

 

What is this research about?

Some say that in our global world, local communities are becoming less important. Yet, as many individuals and families are struggling with the effects of recession, it seems that these local, personal relationships, and the support they offer, are becoming important again. This research tries to explore this question in Cullercoats and on the Marden estate.

I’m particularly interested in exploring whether our relationships with family, friends and neighbours help us to deal with economic uncertainty. This might be through the moral support they offer, or because they give us time, or money, or other kinds of help that make it easier for us to get by.

The North East has been hit especially hard by the effects of recession and austerity (such as job loss, pay squeezes, benefits reductions, service cuts). Within the region, the ‘squeezed middle’ (low-to-middle income households, with a total income of roughly £12,000 to £40,000) has been particularly vulnerable.

Cullercoats and the Marden estate are home to a significant number of these households. They have dense and long-standing networks of community relationships and a relatively well-defined identity. All of this means this is a good place to explore the questions I’m interested in.

To explore these questions, it is important to me to first get to know Cullercoats and the Marden estate well. I want to get a sense of the life and history of the communities and to find out what is important to people living there.

The next step will be to carry out interviews with individuals and families in Cullercoats and on the Marden estate. These will involve discussions of the recession and of everyday relationships, with friends and family.

 

Why am I doing this research?

I believe the question of how individuals and families are living with the effects of the recession is an extremely important one and I think that people’s relationships with each other have a real influence on how they deal with economic stress. I have a young daughter, I work part-time and I live on the coast so these issues are personally important to me too.

 

Who is funding it?

Newcastle University, through their Catherine Cookson Foundation. The University has a longstanding relationship with Cullercoats through the Dove Marine Laboratory and is keen to support research that connects to the lives of local communities. Of course, Catherine Cookson herself was very interested in communities like Cullercoats.

 

Who will use the research?

Most importantly, this research will, I hope, be the beginning of a long-term relationship with Cullercoats, one that allows me to research issues that are important to people who live there. So I plan to feed what I find out back to the people I interviewed, including to those working in institutions that support community life. I will also be writing blogs and papers to present at conferences and to publish in academic journals.

 

How will any information you share be used?

In all meetings and interviews, I will discuss and agree how the information will be used. If you would like it to be anonymised before it is used in presentations or publications, we can agree that. All material gathered in interviews and meetings will be stored safely. I will be the only person who has access to it.

 

Are you interested in being interviewed about your experiences of recession and community in Cullercoats?

I’m currently looking for families living on low-to-middle incomes in Cullercoats and on the Marden estate to interview. Interviews will focus on your experiences of the current recession and your relationships within the local community.

Interviews can take place with one or more family members and can be arranged at a time and place that suits you.

If you are interested, please do get in touch and I will send you more information about what is involved.

 

Getting in touch

If you live in Cullercoats or on the Marden estate, think you belong to the ‘squeezed middle’, and are interested in being interviewed, please contact me by email, phone or text.

Mobile: 07580 386874

Email: alison.stenning@ncl.ac.uk

 

Updates and more information about the project can be found at:

blogs.ncl.ac.uk/alisonstenning  

www.facebook.com/researchingcullercoats

Twitter: @alisonstenning

 

A PDF version of this information can be downloaded here.

 

 

 

Geography, relationships and the ‘bedroom tax’

Although most of those affected by the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ are not what we’d identify as ‘squeezed middle’ households (since, by definition, they’re in receipt of housing benefit), exploring the effects of the government’s clampdown on what it sees as ‘under-occupation’ gives an insight into some of the issues at the heart of this project.

What the ‘bedroom tax’ belies is a determined attempt by the Coalition and its thinkers to ignore the importance of everyday relationships and their geographies, within and beyond the home. The determination to cut the housing benefit bill by ‘taxing’ recipients who have one or two spare rooms threatens the relationships which protect families and individuals, which help them to feel secure and looked after.

How does it do this? In two primary ways, I think.

One, it disregards the complexity of family relationships within the home. For example, the insistence that siblings share rooms (depending on age and gender) fails to acknowledge a raft of circumstances that might make this difficult, including special needs or disabilities, or time and space for study, or even radically different personalities. Forcing siblings to share in some of these circumstances might put so much pressure on relationships in the home that they begin to break. Similar arguments could be made about the expectation that couples must share a bedroom, regardless of circumstance. Or consider the numerous cases where a sister or a nephew or a cousin provides unofficial care for an adult family member with an illness or a disability; under the new regime, those sisters, nephews or cousins don’t count as ‘family’ and so wouldn’t be entitled to a room of their own in the house where they’re providing care. Finally, think of those families whose circumstances have suddenly changed, through separation, estrangement, death, or even just an adult child leaving home. The ‘bedroom tax’ would mean that, unless they choose to pay the penalty, those families will have to move before they’re had time to get used to the changed circumstances or to come to terms with the loss. Polly Toynbee in The Guardian recounts the desperate case of a family who recently lost their seven year old daughter to cancer and who, as a result, are seen to ‘under-occupy’ their home.

Two, it fails to value the place of embedded, long-term, local relationships and their contribution to people’s wellbeing. In another Guardian piece, Amelia Gentleman talks to residents on the Bushbury Hill housing estate in Wolverhampton, but their tales will be replicated nationwide. Dozens of residents are being forced to choose between paying the ‘tax’ or relocating and losing the relationships they’ve built from living on the estate for decades. Those relationships, with friends or neighbours or local shops and services, might be offering all kinds of support: community, conversation and friendship, childcare, loans of money, food, equipment, a watchful eye on each other’s homes, to name a few. In short, these kinds of relationships are invaluable, and especially for more vulnerable and isolated households. Their loss may have a real impact on welfare, in ways that may be impossible to quantify but which are nevertheless costly. The head of Public Health England recently argued that “Being isolated and living alone shortens life and increases disability. It is equivalent to 15 cigarettes a day.”

An additional irony, if you can call it that, is that many who do relocate will end up in homes which, though smaller, are more expensive, such that the housing benefit bill increases rather than decreases.

It’s a terrible policy, one with a potentially enormous human cost. Relationships matter and we need to take care of them.

Reports from the field I

Slowly but surely the project is getting going. I’m starting by trying to make contact and build relationships with key actors in Cullercoats, with church leaders, head teachers, community leaders and so on. These early meetings are about getting a better sense of Cullercoats, its geography and history and the challenges it’s facing.

I’m slowly building up a map (both mental and ‘actual’) of the community – you can have a look at that here. One of the first things that has become clear is that what is adminstratively Cullercoats (Cullercoats ward of North Tyneside Borough Council, the blue boundary on the Google Map) is more commonly understood as (at least) two distinct places, Cullercoats village and the Marden Estate.

Cullercoats village is an historic community with its roots in fishing and its location on the sea front, historically just thirteen streets, many of which were destroyed in a poorly conceived and poorly received ‘redevelopment’ in the late 1960s and early 1970s (with links to and echoes of the work of T Dan Smith and John Poulson in Newcastle, fictionalised in the BBC’s Our Friends in the North). Just one street of fishermen’s cottages remain, on Simpson Street, but there are other reminders of the village’s fishing heritage, in the Watch House, the boat yard, and the Fishermen’s Mission, all on the seafront. For many who live in the village, Cullercoats extends only as far inland as the Metro line – ‘over the bridge’ is not Cullercoats.

The Marden Estate dates from the post-war period when the then Tynemouth Borough Council began to develop an estate of council housing for families from the western parts of the borough (such as Balkwell and Chirton). It’s bounded on its eastern, southern and western edges by quite major roads (and on the north by Marden Quarry), making it a fairly contained and defined place. It seems to inspire a quite considerable sense of attachment and belonging, especially amongst those residents who have lived on the estate since their houses were built and who were proud to make the ‘step up’ (to quote one of my interviewees) to the bigger houses and wider streets of ‘the Marden’. Some houses were built privately but most were council houses, though these were largely bought by tenants with the right-to-buy. The estate has changed quite considerably in the last twenty or so years as the right-to-buy has enabled much more movement in and out and as the estate’s houses attract new families, drawn to the coast from across the region and beyond. This newer geography is something that I expect will be quite important as my fieldwork progresses.

The separation of Cullercoats village and the Marden isn’t quite as clear-cut as this suggests, however. At funerals, church leaders tell me, the webs of relationships that connect the two parts of the ward become very clear: family roots lead back from the Marden to the seafront and belie a intertwined geography of family and friendship. Church parishes, school catchments, pub and club locations, and community activities all draw people across the streets and spaces of Cullercoats and the Marden. How these relationships work as the communities change is a question at the heart of my research.