How does it really feel to live and raise children in dense and difficult inner-city areas like London's East End? A new book, East Enders: family and community in east London, by Katharine Mumford and Professor Anne Power, Britain's leading expert on urban neighbourhoods, reports the experiences of 100 families living in Hackney and Newham, two of the very poorest parts of London. The book shows that while life is inevitably tough, there are good things as well as bad things, notably a far stronger sense of community than in more privileged places - and this despite a constantly changing and multi-racial population.
The book - from the LSE's Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE) and published by the Policy Press - draws on detailed and candid discussions of how people feel about community, race relations, having a job or staying at home with children, neighbourhood conditions, care of open spaces, crime and social breakdown. The conversations, most of which were with mothers, provide a unique sense of being in people's homes, sharing their daily struggles and hopes and fears for their children.
The book describes how:
Conditions in these neighbourhoods and for these families are often highly unstable. Many people survive on low incomes and nearly half are lone parents, making them feel vulnerable and 'up against it'. They struggle with high levels of crime and a strong sense of insecurity. They mostly live in council rented housing, which offers very little control, and are upset by housing and environmental conditions that they feel powerless to change.
Over 70 per cent of housing in these neighbourhoods is publicly owned and rented. But while public housing provides affordable homes for those in greatest need, a council flat has become the equivalent of 'black and white TV in a world where most other people have colour'. A majority of families would prefer to own.
Although one third of the families have no earner (predominantly lone parent families), nearly 60 per cent of adults in the families are employed - including half the mothers. What is perhaps surprising is that so many of the employed mothers (58 per cent) work full-time, so many (70 per cent) have reasonably steady, if not well-paid, jobs and so many (one third) have undertaken training, despite having left school with few or no qualifications.
The pace of change, the high proportion of families who say they want to leave the area, the close proximity of extreme wealth in the city and the struggle to survive all create a sense of uncertainty and anxiety, particularly in mothers. The families are much more dissatisfied with almost all local services than residents in other areas - four times more so with the general environment. Neighbourhood environments are much worse. And they are very worried about rearing their children in the inner city.
Some services are good: transport links, leisure facilities and shops are more accessible in these neighbourhoods and thus more useful. So most families have a mixed view of the prospects for their neighbourhoods, believing that physical conditions are getting better but social conditions are getting worse, particularly aggressive and anti-social behaviour.
Despite these problems, the families in Hackney and Newham have a far stronger attachment to the notion of community than the average person, with almost daily contact with neighbours and local friends as well as relatives. Mothers particularly depend on familiar faces and 'looking out for each other'.
Michael Young and Peter Willmott's famous 1950s book, Family and Kinship in East London, showed social patterns changing slowly over time with strong family ties, predictable work and intense local networks. Today, social relations are far more uncertain, with many newcomers. Kurds, West Africans and East Europeans are among recent arrivals into traditionally white working class East End areas.
Yet a majority of families believe that living in a multi-racial area is positive, particularly for their children's future. At the same time, racial harassment including severe intimidation and physical attacks is four times more common than elsewhere. Racial tensions are sometimes high and it is clear that almost all families, whatever their origins, are acutely conscious of their changing community and the competition for space and other resources, such as housing, schools, jobs and state benefits.
But within the potentially fraught arena of inter-racial communication, the idea of community is extremely important to 90 per cent of the families. Almost all mothers have friends from other ethnic backgrounds. It does not appear to be true that attachment to community disintegrates in a global age, in a global city, with fast changing populations, strong cultural and ethnic differences and many alienating pressures.
The authors conclude that while problems in Hackney and Newham are often intense, these neighbourhoods are not on the brink of collapse. Indeed, some key measures, such as house prices, school performance and employment opportunities, have upward trajectories.
Anne Power comments: 'There is a tug of war between things that are going better - such as schools - and things that feel out of control - such as drug crime. So while too many of our families feel insecure at too many different levels, there is a way forward.
'More pro-active policing of crime, more support for parents, a front-line, community-oriented style of management for council estates, more care of basic conditions, control of nuisance and the enforcement of public standards are the missing ingredients.'
For further information contact
East Enders: family and community in east London' by Katharine Mumford and Anne Power is published by the Policy Press. Copies are available from Marston Book Services, Tel: 01235 465500, priced £19.99 (plus £2.75 postage and packaging).
The book will be launched at the London School of Economics (LSE) at 4pm on Tuesday 13 May 2003, including commentaries from Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality and Polly Toynbee from The Guardian.
Anne Power is professor of social policy and deputy director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE) at LSE; Katharine Mumford was research officer at the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the time of writing.
13 May 2003