From Landscape Surgery to the RGS-IBG Conference: An academic journey…

In a Landscape Surgery session earlier this summer, I presented an outline of the current and future research plans for my PhD project, ideas that I have since developed and extended into two paper presentations at the RGS-IBG annual conference last week. Below is a summary of the presentation I gave Landscape Surgery, and an outline of my future research plan for the coming year.

My research seeks to assess the impact of coalition housing policy in inner London, with a focus on two case studies in particular; the criminalisation of squatting in a residential building in England and Wales (Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishing of Offenders Act), which came into being in September 2012, and the removal of the spare room subsidy, more infamously known as the ‘bedroom tax’, which sees social tenants in receipt of housing benefit lose a percentage of their rent eligible for housing benefit if they are deemed to have one or more spare bedroom (a 14% reduction for one spare bedroom, and a 25% reduction for two or more).

Two central questions form the basis of my research;

1. How have the two policies impacted upon squatters and social tenants financially, emotionally, and in relation to their ability to secure and maintain a sense of home?

2. How have the two policies differed in terms of media rhetoric, public response and resistance, and what are the reasons behind these differences?

I have been developing my first research question primarily in relation to the concept of ‘domicide’. Originating in Canadian geographers Porteous and Smith’s 2001 book Domicide: The global destruction of home, domicide refers to the intentional destruction of home for political and/or corporate gains. Throughout the book, Porteous and Smith refer to wide-ranging examples of the ways in which the homespace can be destroyed; from extreme examples of war and ethnic resettlement, to the more mundane ‘everyday’ practices of domicide such as dam construction in the British Columbia river basin leading to the submergence of thousands of homes and communities. Porteous and Smith’s work highlighted the overwhelming regularity of domicide across time, space, and scale; however their focus considered only the physical elements of domicide, the destruction of or displacement from the dwelling as a material structure. Throughout this year, I have been considering domicide not only as a physical phenomenon, but also as a social and symbolic one; home can be destroyed not only through demolishing a house or displacing its residents, but also through reducing the home-making capacity of particular figures via a multitude of means.

This is where Section 144 and the bedroom tax come in. Although the policies may indeed bring about physical removal from the home, particularly in the case of Section 144, their domicidal capacity goes beyond the material alone. With the case of Section 144 for example, the introduction of the law has rendered squatters, already a controversial figure in the British public psyche, as criminal deviants; thus outcasting them further from normalised societal structures and severely compromising their ability to form and maintain alternative home-making practices. With the bedroom tax, too, domicide is abundant, with the policy increasing the precarity of the home; a disconnection of home as a site of autonomy and personal control, and a stark reminder from the coalition government that social tenants are subject to the whims of governance determining what kinds of home they are deserving of.

As mentioned in my Landscape Surgery presentation, and extended during my presentation for the ‘Geographies of Forced Eviction’ session at the RGS-IBG, I have now begun to consider the ways in which these enactments of domicide are part of wider technologies of governance, enabled by normalised constructions of what home is ‘supposed’ to be. I have again been considering this in relation to UK housing policy, thinking through the ways in which, particularly since the end of the 1970s, discourses of home became centred around a homeownership-as-aspirational rhetoric; most clearly and consciously enacted through one of the Thatcher government’s flagship policies, the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme, in which council tenants were encouraged to purchase their council homes for a fraction of their market value. This policy in particular critically altered the course of the UK’s housing history, shifting notions of the ethical home from a site of welfare provision, to a symbol of individual ownership and investment; to be a homeowner became lauded as beneficial for both the individual and the state. In direct opposition to this, those who are marked as unable or unwilling to engage with such rhetoric came to be portrayed as abject miscreants, figures of individual failure and deviant behaviour; a continuing figuration that I argue has enabled the construction of domicidal policies such as Section 144 and the bedroom tax to occur.

Through my second key research question, I hope to develop further ideas around governance and figuration in UK housing policy. With a more specific focus on media rhetoric and its depiction of squatters and social tenants, I’m looking to understand how and why these figures have been constructed, how these constructions have changed and are changing, and what the differences between rhetoric relating to Section 144 and the bedroom tax are. This section of my research was still at its most basic stage during my Landscape Surgery presentation, and therefore my discussion of it was pretty basic and brief, other than to mention that I intend to use Critical Discourse Analysis as a tool for developing ideas around these representations. Since the Landscape Surgery session, I’ve started to develop these ideas further, and at the RGS-IBG conference last week in the ‘Alternative housing in London’ session gave a presentation on the history of the ‘deviant squatter’ and media discourse, its role in securing the criminalisation of squatting, and the ways in which squatter communities are using similar media outputs in an attempt to re-define and re-position the figure of the squatter, from deviant criminal to alternative, community-orientated homemakers in London. I focused in particular on two recent commercial squats in Hackney and Brixton that emphasised their position as ‘community centres’ rather than homes, constructing themselves as an asset to the local community, rather than a scourge. I’m hoping to develop these ideas and delve further into Critical Discourse Analysis as a methodological tool in the coming year.

Looking back over the past few months, from my Landscape Surgery presentation to my RGS papers, I can see clearly how my research is developing. Thanks in no small part to me beginning my interviews with squatters and social tenants, I feel like I’m starting to move from talking about ideas to actually acting on them! It’s a daunting but exciting time. I’ve been helped and encouraged by the Landscape Surgery first year presentation sessions, and got through my first RGS-IBG conference without having a meltdown. Let the second year commence…

By Mel Nowicki

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2 thoughts on “From Landscape Surgery to the RGS-IBG Conference: An academic journey…

  1. Hannah Awcock says:

    I know I’ve said this before Mel, but it was great to see how much your work has progressed this summer, well done!

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