No room for nuisance

Neighbours from hell and their close companions in Hades, street
beggars, are rarely far from the tabloid front pages. The Sun has
asked its readers to name and shame “Britain’s worst yob”, while
Manchester Council also made headlines with the announcement that
it was considering making school attendance a condition of
families’ council housing. For those persistently failing to ensure
their children attend school, eviction could follow.

The term “antisocial behaviour” has come to cover “57 varieties” of
nuisance neighbours, beggars, street yobs, gum droppers and others
inhabiting that ill-defined territory between public nuisance and
outright lawlessness. Much of this behaviour occurs in areas where
most people live in social housing, placing local authorities and
housing associations in the front line of government action against
antisocial behaviour.

Ever since Tony Blair vowed to be tough on crime and tough on the
causes of crime in the 1990s, the Labour Party has shown a growing
interest in antisocial behaviour. Following the Crime and Disorder
Act 1998, which developed the system of antisocial behaviour
orders, there has been a steady flow of policy announcements and
high-profile speeches.

The Antisocial Behaviour Act 2003 gives social housing providers
sweeping powers to seek injunctions on the grounds of antisocial
behaviour, and allows them to ask the courts to demote a tenancy.
Both these measures make it easier to gain possession of a property
and evict the tenants.

Last October, Blair and home secretary David Blunkett launched a
government action plan called Together, Tackling Antisocial
. Developed by the Home Office Antisocial Behaviour
Unit, it laid out a range of initiatives:

  • Targeting of 450 families involved in persistent antisocial
  • Nuisance neighbourhood panels to nominate nuisance households
    and develop solutions.
  • Parenting programmes for the parents of children at risk of
    committing antisocial behaviour.
  • Trailblazer programmes to address begging in five key areas,
    and the development of a criminal response to begging.

To deliver this agenda, housing agencies are more readily
resorting to eviction, boosting the numbers of families in
temporary accommodation. This year, the media reported the case of
a 10-year-old boy who had attempted suicide seven times after
spending two years in bed and breakfast accommodation. His family
of nine had been evicted from social housing because of the
behaviour of the boy’s brothers. Their solicitor argued that:
“Eviction could have been prevented if a little work had been done
earlier on. The crux is that housing and social services do not
work well together.”

As a consequence of such cases, social workers are recognising that
they are at loggerheads with housing because of the latter’s role
as enforcer. Children and young people at risk of harm can be
disruptive, disengaged and involved in antisocial behaviour. The
approach of housing agencies threatens to undermine the
government’s ambitions to address child protection, poverty, health
and education inequalities as linked issues.

Competing policy strands within government – and the way these are
played out at a local level – exacerbate this problem. We see a
Department for Education and Skills strand, with a message around
joint working, information-sharing and stronger lines of
accountability, based on a local authority duty to act as corporate
parent to children at risk. Then there’s the Home Office strand,
which classifies vulnerable young people as offenders rather than
children at risk and facilitates their exclusion from social
housing. As Mary Riddell noted in the Observer on 5
October 2003, the green paper could be retitled Every Child
Matters As Long As They Behave Themselves

Unfortunately, any challenge to the government agenda on antisocial
behaviour may lead to personal attacks rather than informed debate.
As Blunkett made clear, “naivety” may lead people to subscribe to
the “liberal garbage” of trying to “understand the yob before the
plight of victims”. To discourage such thoughts, he informed
reluctant housing managers to “stop the nuisance or search for a
new career”.

Against this background of increasing pressure to evict families
engaged in antisocial behaviour, our research set out to explore
how housing responses to antisocial behaviour have affected social
work practice. Taking an English local authority as a subject, we
interviewed social work professionals including an assistant
director, team leaders, front-line social workers and the head of
the local youth offending team, and a senior manager in children’s
charity NCH.We use case studies to outline our findings and
illustrate how housing responses to antisocial behaviour negatively
affect social work practice with vulnerable children and their

We found a range of perspectives among social work staff, depending
on seniority and frequency of contact with housing. We developed
case studies that illustrate the key issues for social workers. An
intake team manager outlined several cases:

Family 1: A woman (with a number of children in
care) was evicted for antisocial behaviour. The social workers feel
the family can be reunited but not until rehousing takes place. She
is now pregnant, but unless stable housing can be found, her
rehabilitation and that of her children is under threat. Despite
negotiations with housing, no progress has been made.

Family 2: Social workers are working with a man
and his toddler son living in an unsuitable hostel for homeless
people. The housing association will not rehouse them because of
antisocial behaviour and rent arrears. The poor-quality, private
sector accommodation that has been found is undermining the support
social workers can offer.

Family 3: The team received a call from court that
a family with no previous contact with social services was being
evicted because of the state of their garden and noise nuisance.
Presented with photographic evidence on the state of the house, the
judge decided the children were at risk and suggested an emergency
protection order should be sought. Social workers rushed to court
and persuaded the judge that this was unusual and a full assessment
was needed. Once this was complete, social workers felt there was
no risk and that they didn’t have to work with the family. But the
eviction still went ahead.

Several respondents noted that stock transfer from local
authorities to housing associations had led to an increase in
evictions, and an unwillingness to take risks with young people and
families with high support needs. Observing that housing providers
now aim to provide housing for “the majority” and not for
challenging nuisances, and that families referred to housing
providers by social services were rarely offered homes, one
respondent suggested the local housing waiting list should be
renamed the “f*** off scheme”.

The lack of communication between housing and social services was
also lamented. Local housing providers are evicting more and more
people, but do not notify social services when they do. For
example, a vulnerable family with a new baby and two older children
(one of whom was looked after) were evicted on a Friday afternoon.
When social workers complained, they were told housing had no
responsibility to inform social services.

Additionally, housing workers may make decisions that undermine
social work attempts to engage with families, even when those
attempts are starting to succeed. For example, a family where the
parents had been imprisoned for drug offences and had other
children being looked after wanted to return to the area to
establish better contact with their children. Housing providers
refused to rehouse them.

In another case, a separated family with four children being looked
after were co-operating with plans to rehabilitate the children
with their mother. This was significantly impeded when she was
evicted for the state of her garden.

One team leader provided a rationale for the different perspective
between housing and social work: “Social work aims to give people
optimal chances, whereas housing just provides accommodation.
Social work has to continually fight its corner and make housing
officials understand the issues and complexities.”

He pointed to a family with five children “one of whom is the most
disturbed I have ever met – and they have moved 17 times within a
few years. Housing is an essential part of providing a good
children and families social work service”.

In another case, a lone mother with four children applied for a
housing transfer to make a fresh start in a new area. She was
refused because the oldest child had previously been served with an
antisocial behaviour order – a decision that adversely affected all
the children.

“Housing put up barriers and doesn’t share our perspective on
vulnerable people,” said one social worker. Once a family has been
evicted, housing associations are reluctant to rehouse them, which
can make it difficult to return a child home from care. The same
social worker added:”Eviction makes it harder for people to be good
parents, and creates real difficulties for the children. No other
department in the local authority seems to care about this.”

Eviction pushes problems “downstream”, where social services must
intervene. There was concern about the fissure developing between
supportive social work practice and the increasingly punitive
nature of housing management. A senior manager sympathised with
housing agencies, observing that there was tremendous pressure to
deliver results within a growing culture of zero tolerance.

But a dissenting voice was provided by another senior manager who
argued that practice would have to change in the light of this
government’s distaste for a liberal social work agenda. He
predicted there would be a developing synergy around early
intervention, an assertive style of practice and a willingness to
remove children at risk.

Our research does not yield firm conclusions, but it does show that
housing is increasingly focusing on crime, disorder and community
sustainability while social workers and social services remain
committed to meeting individual needs and working with the whole

The new children’s legislation offers an opportunity to consider
the needs of vulnerable children holistically. Whether the
government will address actions that undermine this objective
remains to be seen.

Frances Young is senior lecturer in social work,
department of social work, University of Central Lancashire; Annie
Huntington is principal lecturer in social work, department of
social work, University of Central Lancashire; and Mark Foord was
lecturer in housing studies, Salford University housing and urban
studies unit.

For further details please contact: Frances Young, Department of
Social Work, University of Central Lancashire, The Harrington
Building, Preston PR1 2HE. Telephone 01772 20120.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.