Life and housing on an Oxford estate

By Connor Woodman, shortlisted for the Dawn Foster Memorial Essay Prize 2022

June 1, 2022 · 9 min read

A woman in front of a concrete panel house

I’m welcomed through a front door framed by a rusting metal pole and a small mossy portico. Grace Muhoro, a tenant renting from Oxford City Council, grabs a fleece and blanket and beckons me through to her sparsely furnished living room.

‘Now they’re putting up the gas price,’ she says. ‘What are we going to do? I can’t even start imagining how we are going to live.’

Grace resides on Barton estate, an Oxford far from the dreaming spires and gated quadrangles of the city centre. Her house is a steel-framed, concrete-panelled ‘prefab’ from the 1940s, factory-built with excess military supplies after WWII.

‘You put the heating off and it just freezes up,’ she says as creaking floorboards sound out overhead. ‘These prefabs don’t contain the warmth. Within five minutes that heat escapes through the walls.’

Fifty-three years old, Grace emigrated to Oxford in 1995 from Kenya. Since then she has fed, clothed and washed the elderly and disabled of Oxfordshire’s care homes and hospitals.

Now training to be a nurse, each week she works 37 hours in an unpaid ‘placement’ and 18 hours in social care, alongside three hours of studying a day. With the council neglecting to upgrade her home’s WWII-era insulation, she struggles to keep the house warm for her two children.

‘I have to live within the means of those 18 [paid] hours a week. All that money is going on fuel.’ She pulls up the energy transactions on her phone: around £45 a week on gas, £10 on electricity.

‘‘When I’m driving back from the hospital, sometimes I cry. I say to myself, ‘I cannot believe, after doing a 13 hour shift, I am going to a home that I’m not even going to enjoy.’ It’s to the point where my children sometimes decide not to have a warm meal because [they’re thinking], ‘if I put it in the oven, probably Mum doesn’t have enough money to top up the gas to cook for us tomorrow’.’

After living in this house for two decades, a mixture of sorrow and defiance marks her voice. ‘I know officers in the council don’t have to pay £220 a month for fuel. If one of those people who makes the policies in the council was in this house, I’m sure they would do something about it.’

The hidden injuries of housing

At the end of WWII, tens of thousands of demobilised soldiers and civilian workers squatted hotels, empty flats and redundant military facilities. Responding to their demands for state-provided housing, an incoming Labour government constructed estates like Barton across the country.

Such sites initially marked a seismic improvement in quality of life, ‘the mark of an upwardly mobile working class’, as historian John Boughton puts it. Communities like Barton were concentrated hubs for the employees of Oxford’s auto industry, a base for labour movement and party.

Today, the word ‘Barton’ can elicit a sneer from many Oxonians. A series of stabbings, an alleged scourge of ‘anti-social behaviour’, low quality of life – the estate’s reputation has declined, even for some who live here. Life expectancy is around 10 years shorter than the broad streets and long driveways of North Oxford. No pub provides for the estate’s several thousand residents; there were two in 1937, when the area contained only a few dozen houses.

Grace’s story is far from uncommon. Hundreds of 1940s prefabs – initially intended to last only 30 years – remain standing in Oxford, where asbestos cladding, shoddy front doors and draughty windows conspire to keep the occupants cold and the gas bills high. Here, class is lived as lack of warmth.

Seek repairs or upgrades from the council, though, and residents report a litany of frustrations: rude and dismissive housing officers, unreturned calls, constant delays. Even more than anger at the conditions of their homes, a feeling of indignity is omnipresent. Those who live here are often treated like nuisances by the authority that takes their rent.

Renters resist

Wyn Alabashian represents a different experience of Oxford’s housing crisis. She lives far from Barton along Cowley Road – a diverse area of migrant workers, students and young families, many renting within Oxford’s private market.

‘I came in 2019 for a masters in linguistics at the University of Oxford,’ Wyn tells me. After living in a rented house with three other students, she had to leave at the end of the one-year contract; a common predicament for private renters.

‘Partly because the housing market in Oxford is a nightmare, I hadn’t found anywhere to move into yet. I stayed on a friend’s sofa for a few weeks,’ she recalls. ‘I eventually found a new place that was even worse: the room was a box with a bed, space for the door to open and a desk, and nothing else.’

After settling into the new place, the landlord from the first house tried to deduct £1,433 from the deposit. Wyn and her former housemates were billed for the garden to be weeded and the house professionally cleaned, although both had been a mess when they moved in.

‘They tried to charge us £150 to get rid of a handful of metal bars. We were having a back-and-forth on email for several months and increasingly realised just how unreasonable landlords can be. We needed to put pressure on them in some concrete way.’

Wyn joined Acorn, the community and tenants union that started a branch in Oxford in 2020. With the help of other members, she forced the landlord to return the entire deposit.

‘The pressure of Acorn got him to the point of worrying and then he caved. Being able to reference that you have an organisation behind you willing to do direct action made it a lot easier.’

The ebb of organisation

Wyn is broadly representative of the new base for left-wing politics identified by Thomas Piketty and his team: highly educated, precarious and relatively low income. Such people are part of the working class – many are baristas, shop assistants, secretaries – but inhabit a slightly different cultural universe to places like Barton, and turn more readily to collective action.

Many in Barton have been beaten down by years of political neglect, burdened with economic and workplace responsibilities that colonise their time and energy. Sitting in Underhill Circus, Barton’s central public plaza, I talk to Peter*, a political refugee from Uganda with a keen sense of collective organisation. He works two jobs, 12 hours a day, and is left with little time to think about taking action. Another, Jerry*, has lived on the estate for decades. There’s no hope of challenging the rich and powerful, he says – the police will come for you as soon as you do. The cops regularly batter down the door of his council flat, looking for evidence of drug dealing. It’s been a few months, he tells me – they’ll be back any day now. Organising under these conditions is undeniably difficult.

Barton does have a history of resistance. Over 35 years ago, a tenants association attempted to force the council to upgrade the local prefabs. Little formal organisation has touched the estate since then, at least until Jeremy Corbyn’s term as Labour leader.

Corbynism has left a mixed legacy in Barton. A local woman, Jabu Nala-Hartley, daughter of South African trade unionists who lives in a council house here, was elected to represent the estate in 2020 as part of a new intake of Corbynite city councillors. Five years of organising in Labour has borne certain fruits.

More representative of the estate’s general mood, though, is Sue, a union-supporting woman I talk with outside the council house she purchased years ago. Although horrified by class inequality and the UK’s treatment of migrants, she was untouched by Corbyn’s Labour Party, shunning the ballot box in 2019.

In Barton, one has to confront Corbynism’s failure to reignite sections of the working class. Home insulation policies proposed during the 2019 election, although theoretically appropriate for a place like Barton, failed to cut the cynicism of a jaded populace. People here feel ignored, disempowered – and they are. Top-down election pledges were unlikely to excite without redressing a sense of lost agency; five years of Westminster squabbles were no substitute for class battles in workplaces and estates.

Projects like Acorn are nascent attempts to unite that section of the working class most enthused by Corbyn’s leadership – largely the young, graduate renters – with that older section which formed Labour’s traditional class base – council tenants and poorer owner-occupiers. Acorn Oxford, dominated by young Cowley Road dwellers like Wyn, is building for a campaign on home insulation in Barton. Grace has joined up.

‘How long,’ she asks, ‘is the council going to punish people? It’s a matter of we people of Barton coming together and telling the council that it’s high time for them to treat us like human beings.’

* Names changed

Connor Woodman is an Acorn Oxford member who has lived in Barton for the last year. Photos by Matt Maddox and Kiri Diaconu.

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