Social Housing as Crime Control: An Examination of the Role of Housing Management in Policing Sex Offenders

Publication Date01 Dec 2001
AuthorRose Gilroy,Christina Pantazis,David Cowan
/tmp/tmp-17A7cpiuKHf46l/input 01 Cowan (bc/d) 1/11/01 8:41 am Page 435
University of Bristol, UK
University of Bristol, UK
University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK
This article considers the ways in which social housing has in recent years become
inextricably linked with the process of crime control. Drawing on case study research
into the rehousing of sex offenders, the authors provide evidence illustrating why and
how social housing management has become increasingly drawn into the fold of crime
control. The article then highlights some serious but often neglected concerns stem-
ming from the adoption by social housing management of more crime control
responsibilities. Whilst protection of individuals and communities should always
remain paramount, the article concludes with a discussion about the implications of
what these processes may mean for social housing.
SOCIAL & LEGAL STUDIES 0964 6639 (200112) 10:4 Copyright © 2001
SAGE Publications, London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi,
Vol. 10(4), 435–457; 020305

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SINCETHEMASSsocial housing building programmes of the inter and
post-war periods, there has been a popular perception of council housing
as inherently criminogenic: these new housing complexes simply repro-
duced the problems of the slums. Whilst traditionally control of crime on
these estates was left to the formal agencies of crime control, it was also com-
monly assumed that the role of social housing professionals was peripheral
to this. For instance, the core tasks of social housing management do not have
any explicit references to crime control and have always ‘. . . centred around
property management – allocations, lettings, rent collection, management of
voids, repairs, maintenance’ (Franklin and Clapham, 1997: 15) which are
usually expressed value neutrally by managers themselves.
Despite this supposed neutrality, there is a wealth of evidence which shows
that from its earliest incarnation, social housing management operated
socially dividing practices, separating the deserving from the undeserving
(Central Housing Advisory Committee (CHAC), 1969; Cole and Furbey,
1994, ch. 5; English, 1979). Social housing management has always been
regarded as exercising social control in terms of allocations and enforcing
tenancy obligations (see, for example, the discussion of the pioneer Octavia
Hill’s housing management techniques: Clapham, 1992). Management was
used to achieve social conformity, to rescue the souls of the poor through
bringing them within the circuits of inclusion (cf. Rose, 2000).
This aspect of the social control paradigm as a function of social housing
management has long been recognized. However, there has been less atten-
tion paid to the implicit and explicit role of social housing in the control of
crime. Whilst arguably matters of crime control have always been present in
the functions of social housing management, these have tended to be of
marginal significance compared with developments over recent years. For
instance, central government schemes such as the Priority Estates Project
(PEP) only had crime control as a subsidiary element (see, for example,
Foster and Hope, 1993); and the vogue in architectural determinism in the
1980s and much of the 1990s (Lund, 1996: 127), to ‘design out crime’, did
not touch upon management responsibilities and has since lost credibility
(Newman, 1973; Coleman, 1985). It is the central contention in this paper
that the social housing manager’s role in the control of crime can no longer
be considered as peripheral to their concerns and responsibilities.
In recent years the crime control function has become explicitly part of the
role and processes of housing management. Crucially, there is an armoury of
legislative powers now in the grasp of managers to deal with the real and per-
ceived behaviour of the occupants of their property. Not only can social land-
lords threaten eviction and subsequent exclusion from social housing, they
can also threaten prosecution for criminal offences relating to the locality.
Policy Action Teams, set up by the Social Exclusion Unit, have set crime
control issues as a major function of management (PAT 6, 1999; PAT 7, 2000;
PAT 8, 2000). As a concomitant of this national response, local councils have

01 Cowan (bc/d) 1/11/01 8:41 am Page 437
been actively pursuing a similar agenda. For example, in Oldham local auth-
ority tenants have a 29-page tenancy agreement (Malik, 1998), which speci-
fies in detail certain proscribed behaviours, designed by ‘a woman at war with
neighbours from hell’ (Hugill, 1998). The assignment and adoption of crime
control functions to social housing management appear to be, at least in part,
motivated by two separate but ultimately connected problems: a desire to
tackle crime and anti-social behaviour (see Papps, 1998; Scott and Parkey,
1998), which are considered to blight the lives of people in the most deprived
areas, including areas dominated by social housing (see Social Exclusion Unit
(SEU) 1998); and a wish to deal with difficult-to-let estates. These flexes of
the crime control muscle are generally supported by tenants who are worried
about anti-social behaviour and the presence of criminal families on their
estates (Keenan, 1998).
Cowan regards the embroilment of housing management in crime control
functions as a shift towards a responsibility thesis, in which occupants are con-
trolled and disciplined into behaving correctly (Cowan, 1999). This thesis
represents an explicit rejection of the rights-based discourse which domi-
nated much of the legal discussion in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s; it empha-
sizes the moral responsibility that is expected of individuals, to behave in
ways which accord with community and housing management values. In
part, this has been driven by financial imperatives after central government
cut the management and maintenance budgets of local authorities, and sought
to impose private sector values on social housing management (through com-
pulsory competitive tendering, for example). Empty housing was penalized
through budgetary mechanisms. Thus, the costs of disputes and individual
deviance, and the existence of difficult-to-let estates could not be tolerated
within the discipline and new environment of social housing management.
In illustrating the thesis in this article that social housing management has
increasingly incorporated crime control methods and discourses into its
own practices, we draw upon our original research, funded by the Joseph
Rowntree Foundation, which examined current practices involved in the
housing of sex offenders in the community (Cowan et al., 1999). More
specifically, the research looked at different strategies employed by local
housing authorities and other social housing providers in allocating and
managing property to them. Whilst the focus of the research was on how
different social housing landlords faced up to and dealt with the challenges
of housing this specific group of ex-offenders, the particular focus of this
paper is to demonstrate the mechanisms, manifestations and implications of
this enhanced role of housing management. Specifically, we raise some issues
about what this change in direction may hold for the future of social
housing. Fieldwork took place during 1998–9 in three case study areas at
the peak of concern about the risks posed by these ex-offenders among
criminal justice and various other agencies as well as communities. Sites of
housing formed a crucial part of this concern, with reports of riots and
attacks on sex offenders by communities and high-profile evictions of sex
offenders by social landlords (English, 1997). The broader societal response

01 Cowan (bc/d) 1/11/01 8:41 am Page 438
to the threats posed by sex offenders has been summarized in the following
It is no exaggeration to say that there has been something of a revolution in
society’s understanding of the true nature and extent of sexual abuse over the
past fifteen years or so. Ignorance, disbelief, denial, minimisation and collusion
have rapidly been replaced by bewilderment, shock, anger, outrage and a
demand for vengeance and that something be done to protect the public in
general and our children in particular. This has been mirrored by the media por-
trayal of sexual abusers as ‘Beasts’ or ‘Monsters’ and the fact that it has become
the normative public response to call for castration, life imprisonment or even
the death penalty. (Briggs et al., 1998)
What has been a notable feature of this concern is that it has been housing
authorities, rather than the police or probation or social services, which have
taken the brunt of public dissatisfaction. Housing is regarded as being
responsible for the original allocation onto the estate and it is an easy target
– it is often decentralized on estates, which are more involved in the lives of
residents, whereas other agencies are seen as remote:
Go and blame the housing officer. Go and blame the estate officer who walks
around the estates . . . Blame somebody in authority. (RI/LA 4/Housing
The police either have no presence or are shielded by their uniform and, in
any event, attack upon them will be judged harshly. In one of our study areas
where there had been a...

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