Austerity UK: The Enclosure of the Welfare Commons

This is an extract from Chapter 4 ‘The Stigma Machine of Austerity’.

The theme of enclosures runs through Stigma. One of the arguments of this chapter is that austerity should be understood as a form of capitalist enclosure.  Enclosures of land, resources, people, are often lubricated by stigma. It is easier to take bread from the mouths of people who have in advance been stigmatised as morally deficient, undeserving, or not fully human. 

The chapter from which this extract is taken considers why stigma power proved so effective in winning consent for austerity enclosures in the UK after the 2008 crash  –  how the stigma machine of austerity has been resisted. It also considers previous historical periods of welfare provision, and asks what kind of new post-austerity welfare settlement we should work towards. 

Forging new social and political solidarities will be crucial as we navigate the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, mourn the dead, and struggle for a new social contract #buildbackbetter #buildbackwith 


‘Austerity was a political choice. Cutting services instead of raising taxes was a choice. To make it stick, they used stigma as a weapon.’

Paul Mason, writer and journalist, 2017


In November 2018, Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, visited Britain on a fact-finding mission to ascertain the impact of a decade of austerity. In his interim (2018) and final report (2019), which draw on a substantial body of independent evidence, Alston describes that what he witnessed was nothing less than the ‘disappearance of the post-war British welfare state’. As he writes, ‘although the United Kingdom is the world’s fifth largest economy, one fifth of its population (14 million people) live in poverty, and 1.5 million of them experienced destitution in 2017’.[i]  Alston draws particular attention to the disproportionate impacts of this ‘disappearance’ of the welfare state onthose already on the losing end of the British class society: working-class children and young people, low-paid women, especially working-class women of colour, disabled people, and those living at the margins of Britain’s increasingly punitive citizenship and residency regimes, including precarious migrant workers and asylum-seekers.

The effects of the evisceration of state welfare has been well evidenced by academics, journalists, and charitable organisations.As my friend and colleague Chris Grover summarises,the ‘cuts and changes to social provision’ made by the British government in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis ‘have contributed to increased poverty rates; falling living standards; the expansion of precarious wage; deepening disabilised, gendered and racialised inequalities; a colossal increase in homelessness and rough sleeping, and food and fuel poverty’.[ii] In short, the austerity state is characterised by the inability of increasingly large swathes of people to access the basic resources of shelter, food, heating and healthcare which they require to adequately sustain the lives of themselves, their children, disabled and elderly relatives. What this state-crafted, government-planned and managed programme of ‘disaster capitalism’ has left in its wake is an immense crisis of social reproduction.[iii] I use the word ‘disaster’ advisedly here, for what this near decade-long government programme of reform has effected, is levels of precarity and vulnerability so dire, that some poorer communities face circumstances of deprivation that resemble those found in the aftermath of wars and natural disasters.

The violent outcomes of this ‘decisive break with the postwar consensus’ and the ‘profound reshaping of social life’ it has set in motion are not hidden.[iv] Nobody living in Britain in the last decade can have failed to have notice the profound social changes effected by austerity. As Alston concludes, the social catastrophe precipitated by austerity ‘is obvious to anyone who opens their eyes’.[v] Indeed, it is difficult not to see the effects of this programme of reform. For example, the growing numbers of people begging and sleeping rough on the streets of British towns and cities, in parks and playing fields. Rough sleeping, the smallest but most visible tip of the homelessness crisis, has risen by 165% in England since 2010. Many local authorities have attempted to erase traces of sleeping and begging in public and commercial settings: by criminalising homeless people; through the forced movement of people from town and city centres; by introducing punitive bylaws, fines and sanctions, and in London and Liverpool through collusion with homelessness charities and the central government Home Office to deport non-national homeless people from the state itself.[vi] Despite these efforts the scale of the homelessness crisis is impossible to hide.

Other symptoms of austerity, such as hunger and mental distress, are less acutely visible, and here both quantitative evidence and qualitative data is essential in enabling us to build a picture of what this ‘disappearance’ of the welfare state means.  For example, we know that austerity reforms of the benefits system targeted working-age adults, and that this has had a particularly pronounced impact on levels of child poverty. Britain’s leading independent microeconomic research institute, The Institute for Fiscal Studies, has detailed how austerity has wiped out the legacy of all previous attempts and political promises to eradicate child poverty. Indeed, child poverty, whether assessed via relative or absolute measures, has been increasing unremittingly since 2011. For example, it is estimated that ‘by 2023 to 2024 the proportion of children living in relative poverty (after housing costs) is on course to hit 37%’.[vii] As Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, states: ‘It’s increasingly evident, particularly to people working with children, that we’re in a child poverty crisis. And it is primarily to do with the massive cuts to benefits.’[viii]

A 2019 survey conducted by the National Education Union (NEU) among 8,600 school leaders, teachers and support staff, revealed that 97 per cent of staff in state-funded schools had seen a dramatic increase in poverty in schools, and were regularly required to feed and clothe children in their care. When asked to describe the impacts of this planned impoverishment, ‘three out of four respondents said they saw children suffering from fatigue (78%), poor concentration (76%) or poor behaviour (75%); more than half said their students had experienced hunger (57%) or ill-health (50%)’.[ix] Further, more than a third of those surveyed said children in the schools in which they worked had experienced stigmatised bullying as a consequence of poverty.  Austerity is creating a hostile environment for children living in poverty in British schools.

While austerity cuts have been implemented with haste, many biosocial symptoms of austerity are slower to reveal themselves. Deprivation accumulates in bodies over lifetimes. Nevertheless, health professionals have already documented ‘growing evidence of conditions not only exacerbated by poverty, but caused by it’.[x] For example, national level data reveals rates of malnutrition amongst people admitted to hospital have doubled in the last decade, and there is an evidenced rise in diseases associated with poverty.[xi] This striking phenomenon has been dubbed, by both medical practitioners and journalists, as marking the return of ‘Victorian Diseases’. For example, there has been a rise in reported cases of tuberculosis(an especially acute disease amongst homeless populations), scarlet fever, whooping cough, gout, and Vitamin-D deficiency (linked to anecdotal reports from multiple health professionals of a rise in cases of childhood rickets, and osteomalacia – the adult form of the disease).[xii]

That austerity is making people physically ill is underscored by the fact that life expectancy rates are declining amongst some population groups. In 2018, the National Office for Statistics published data that revealed thatthe predicted lifespan of deprived women in Britain had fallen for the first time since the 1920s, and that ‘the gap in life expectancy between the poorest and most advantaged’ women in England had reached a record high ‘now standing at seven years and five months’.[xiii] Several subsequent studies have also suggested correlations between austerity cuts to adult social and elder care and rising excess mortality rates. In short, all the scientific evidence suggests that the ‘disappearance of the post-war British welfare state’ is foreshortening working-class lives; and the lives of others, the elderly, the disabled, without the necessary accumulated reserves of wealth to defend themselves or their loved ones against the grinding effects of the erosion of the social state.

In his interim and final report, Alston draws our attention to the now familiar economic origin story of austerity, noting how these ‘far-reaching changes to the role of government’ were ‘sold’ to the British electorate as ‘being part of an unavoidable program of fiscal “austerity”, needed to save the country from bankruptcy’.[xiv] However, as Alston concludes, ‘the driving force’ behind austerity was not economics; rather austerity is a political project underpinned by an ideological ‘commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering’.[xv] Alston notes that ‘the experience of the United Kingdom …. underscores the conclusion that poverty is a political choice’:

If the economic rationale for austerity as a necessary debt-reduction programme is fantastical, there was nevertheless considerable capital to be made through its implementation. In the case of austerity, the shock of the 2008 global banking crisis was seized upon as an opportunity not only to turn off the redistributive tap, but to frack the social state for profit by privatising public assets and services. In this regard, austerity, like previous historical rounds of capitalist enclosure, is a political ruse which has protected existing ‘concentrations of elite wealth and power’.[xvii] Austerity has witnessed the whole-sale harnessing of financial and legal mechanisms of deregulation, extracting as much value as possible from Britain’s ‘social estate’, redistributing wealth, resources and land upwards.[xviii] The winners under austerity have been the financial and corporate elites, who have not only emerged with ‘fortunes intact’ but ‘holding a larger than ever slice of the cake’.[xix] This has led to the conclusion that ‘austerity’ is a proxy term for ‘class war’: a war of breath-taking cruelty waged against the poorest, the most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of British society.[xx]

Austerity as enclosure

Austerity is a 21st-century enclosure movement. By this, I mean that it is a political programme that involves the fracking of public goods by those in the service of capital, in ways which are designed to upend the customary forms of social provision cemented in the mid-twentieth century. The programme of austerity which began in 2010 was characterised by the rapid closure of local hospitals and clinics, public libraries, local museums, post offices, children’s nurseries, community and youth centres, day-centres and residential care homes for disabled people and pensioners, and the enclosure of common land, including parks and playing fields. The amount of services, facilities, buildings and land once held in common by local communities, now sold bycash-strapped local authorities to developers, or simply abandoned to decay, is staggering. The speed with which this expropriation has been undertaken has been shocking to witness. To take the just one small example, in 2019, West Sussex county council, a relatively wealthy area of South East England, announced that it was cutting the budget ‘it spends on housing support services for rough sleepers, victims of domestic abuse, care leavers, and frail older people in the county’ from £6.3 million to £2.3 million. Implementing this budget cut entailed dismantling ‘an entire social infrastructure of hostels, drop-in centres, and floating support teams built up over years’.[xxi]

What we are witnessing in austerity Britain is the enclosure of local ‘welfare commons’, namely those public goods and services established by local communities through long histories of philanthropy, charitable and worker contributions (e.g. local taxation) and grassroots agitation. Entire material infrastructures, buildings, services and land – including those hospitals and schools that local communities campaigned for, and often paraded through the streets for in the nineteenth century – are disappearing.

hospital parde Ely 1912

[This is a photograph of a fund-raising parade for Addenbrooke's hospital in 1912.  Mass fundraising - and public demonstrations of support for local hospitals and front line workers - has been one of the activities that has intensified during the Covid-19 pandemic, and is a reminder of how health care was crowdsourced in another era. You can also watch a film of Skipton Hospital Procession in 1902.]

The local patchworks of welfare institutions and services built up over centuries were first absorbed into the British welfare state in the 1940s and 50s. For the majority of citizens, the mid-twentieth century ‘statification’ of welfare provisions brought significant improvements in terms of fairness of access, greater equality of treatment, and the national pooling of expertise and resource. Through privatisation, the British state is now expropriating these communal assets from the communities who originally fought for and financed them. Seen from the perspective of this longer history of welfare, austerity is nothing less a government-orchestrated programme of theft.

It is not just buildings, essential services, material resources which have been enclosed in this process, but generations of public sector knowledge and expertise. Indeed, austerity has seen 1 million workers in the public sector lose their jobs.[xxii] Some statutory services have been contracted out to for-profit private sector organisations, where employment contracts are more precarious, work lower paid and conditions of work less protected. Swelling numbers of unpaid voluntary workers have attempted to keep services going, but after a decade of cuts many volunteers are burning out.

As social safety nets are cut away, people are falling through the gaps in the emergent uneven, fragmented patchwork of state and charitable provisions. The enclosure of the ‘welfare commons’ has accelerated what charities have described as an epidemic of social isolation and loneliness. Elderly people and disabled people have been enclosed in their homes. Children with special and complex needs can’t get the support they require in school settings, and increasing numbers of children are now outside of formal education altogether. Young people like David [see Introduction to this chapter] are sleeping on the streets. Women are forced to remain with abusive partners as domestic violence shelters have been closed down. As Sisters Uncut, a collective ‘fighting against budget cuts to domestic and sexual violence organisations and services in Britain’ put it: ‘They cut, we bleed.’[xxiii]

It is estimated that 10 per cent of the British population is now ‘food insecure’: a situation defined as ‘experiencing hunger, inability to secure enough food of sufficient quality and quantity to enable good health and participation in society, and cutting down on food due to financial necessity’.[xxiv] Foodbanks and other mass forms of charitable emergency food provision were almost unknown in Britain between 1950 and 2010. Now every city and town in Britain has a foodbank, and some have several. In every deprived neighbourhood, networks of food clubs, food banks and other emergency feeding centres have sprung up. Every supermarket in every British town and city has an emergency food donation point near the checkouts. Special signs have been designed and printed for use on supermarket shelfs, which direct shoppers to the non-perishable food and provisions most useful and/or urgently required by local foodbanks. Staff at the university where I work are now encouraged to donate monthly to our local food bank through a ‘salary sacrifice’ scheme. Students regularly hold collections for the local food bank.

Food bank collection point

I could go on – examples of the ways in which austerity has seeped its way into new forms of charitable giving is endless. My point is that the emergence of these new social and cultural infrastructures of alms-giving are inescapable in the everyday lives of all citizens, and in this respect the depth and scale of the poverty inaugurated by austerity is quite literally on public view. Yet, as Vicki Cooper and David Whyte suggest, after a decade of cuts we seem to have become so ‘accustomed to the ease with which people are evicted and made homeless’, the foodbanks, the street-begging, and the mental health epidemic, ‘that we do not make the most obvious of observations; that the age that we live in is one in which the political violence of the state is becoming normalised’.[xxv]


The uneven geography of austerity

Local perspectives on the impacts of austerity are particularly important because, as Alston notes, it is local authorities ‘which perform vital roles in providing a real social safety net’ that have been most dramatically ‘gutted’ by cuts.[i] The services provided by local authorities include education, housing, transport and leisure and statutory responsibilities for providing services to vulnerable groups, including social care for the elderly, disabled adults and children. As recorded by the British government’s Public Accounts Committee, the scale of cuts to local authorities is truly staggering. Central government grants to local authorities, which used to be the primary mechanism for redistributing national taxation to local areas, have seen on average ‘a 49.1% real-terms funding reduction since 2010’, with an additional 77 per cent reduction being implemented at the time of writing.[ii] As Mia Gray and Anna Barford have detailed, ‘the politics of austerity “dumped” the fiscal crisis onto the local state’, effectively ‘devolving austerity to the local level’.[iii] What national level accounts of the impact of austerity invariably conceal are correlations between the depth of cuts and areas of already existing high rates of poverty and deprivation; for example, ‘within England, cities and local governments in the very north of the country saw the most severe cuts’.[iv] In short, the effects of austerity are radically geographically uneven, with disproportionate impacts in poorer regions, such as the North of England … .[v]

This is partly a consequence of a fundamental shift in the redistributive model through which local authorities are funded. Government grants to local authorities are being incrementally ‘devolved’, and local governments are now increasingly required to raise much of their own income through local taxation (council tax and business rates) and the introduction of charges for services. This shift from a more universalist to a devolved funding model disadvantages poorer regions outside of the wealthier South East of England. In an attempt to manage this transition, local authorities are drawing on reserves; however, in poorer regions  ‘lower local property values mean there is less potential for local government to profit from renting or selling council assets, which could be used to buffer shrinking grants’.[vi] In the context of a the UK’s London-centric journalism and media coverage, these differences in the spatial geographies of austerity matter profoundly in terms of our ability to see the differential impacts of the disappearance of the welfare state.

In 2018, a Midlands local authority, Northamptonshire County Council, declared itself bankrupt and central government-appointed commissioners assumed control over their budget: a process that saw ‘radical service cuts and halted all new expenditures except for statutory services and the safeguarding of vulnerable people, and even these services have experienced cuts’.[vii] The National Audit Office (NAO) has revealed that one in ten county councils could run out of reserves by 2021. If austerity continues (as currently planned), other local authorities will declare bankruptcy, as reserve funds are eroded and all existing assets sold off. The prospect of multiple bankruptcies in the public sector – which includes the bankruptcy of hospital and health trusts and schools, as well as local authorities – marks unchartered territory in the history of the modern British state.

My own local authority, Lancashire County Council, is amongst those facing bankruptcy. On 14 February 2019, in its latest attempt to balance the books, Lancashire County Council passed a £77 million package of cuts to services for vulnerable adults and children, and committed to finding an additional £135m of savings in the four years leading up to 2021-22. As the council’s Labour opposition leader, Azhar Ali, stated, if implemented these cuts will ‘sink communities’ and ‘lead to the loss of lives’.[viii] Protestors outside County Hall in Preston, the building in which elected local politicians gathered to vote on the latest proposed budget cuts, held up signs which said ‘Valentine’s Day Massacre’.

My intention here isn’t to blame local authorities for cuts in budgets determined by national government. Nevertheless, it is important to draw attention to local fiscal responses to austerity, and to examine the ways in which the logic of neoliberal capitalism has become embedded within the structures of local government. As the housing and planning campaigner and scholar Michael Edwards argues, for some time local authorities have been encouraged, indeed compelled, to reimagine local resources and infrastructures (services, buildings, land) as financial assets, rather than as community resources whose value lies in their use.[ix] It is important to register also how state actors have increasingly, if sometimes unwillingly, become participants in the implementation of neoliberal projects of ‘accumulation through dispossession’. Further, implementing these changes takes significant time and labour, and over the last decade, cutting budgets, demolishing services and enclosing local welfare commons has become the dispiriting day job of many civil servants and local politicians.

The devolution of austerity means in effect that people are unable to shape local decision-making through elections, as the stripping bare of budgets means local politicians are effectively denuded of meaningful powers to change the situation faced by their constituents. At the same time, the outsourcing and privatisation of services and public goods have seen other structures of accountability fatally eroded – who do you hold to account if a for-profit service provider fails to provide safe or adequate care? For many, legal redress is no longer possible, as legal aid has also been closed off, as implemented in the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. Unless you are wealthy enough to pay for legal representation, it is incredibly difficult to challenge decision-making around housing, family law, immigration, employment or welfare. It is no coincidence that legal aid was diminished at the same time as the government’s welfare revolution began.[x] In short, the democratic tools through which individuals and communities might in the past have held local decision makers to account have been severely blunted.



[i]Alston, “Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.”

[ii]See the 2017 Financial sustainability of local authorities inquiry,

The structure of local government in Britain is complex, involving different kinds and tiers of government in different places. In short, there are four main types of local authority in England: 27 county councils(which devolve some services to 201 lower tier district councils – town and small city councils), 92 unitary authorities (including‘metropolitan districts’, cities and some large towns) which manage all resources and services centrally, and 33 London boroughs.  Amongst these different types of local authority, county councils have borne the most significant cuts, and receive substantially lower levels of funding for key services such as social care, county schools, and children’s services. In totem, central government funding received by County Councils will have decreased by 93% by 2020 – a shortfall which is supposed to be met through local taxation and enterprise.

[iii]Mia Gray and Barford, “The Depths of the Cuts: The Uneven Geography of Local Government Austerity,” 558.

[iv]Mia Gray and Barford, 551.

[v]Devolved national systems of welfare spending mean that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have had slightly higher levels of protection from austerity cuts than English authorities.

[vi]Mia Gray and Barford, “The Depths of the Cuts: The Uneven Geography of Local Government Austerity,” 553.

[vii]Mia Gray and Barford, 557.

[viii]Anon, “Lancashire Councillors Approve £77m of Service Cuts,” BBC News Website, February 15, 2017,

[ix] Michael Edwards, “The Housing Crisis and London,” City20, no. 1 (2016): 222–37.See also David Madden and Peter Marcuse, In Defence of Housing: The Politics of Crisis(London: Verso, 2016).

[x]Iain Duncan Smith, “Iain Duncan Smith: Labour Only Stands for Welfare Dependency,” The Telegraph, February 15, 2015,

[ii]Chris Grover, “Violent Proletarianisation: Social Murder, the Reserve Army of Labour and Social Security ‘Austerity’ in Britain,”Critical Social Policy39, no. 3 (2019): 339.

[iii]See Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (London: Penguin Books, 2008).I use the term social reproduction here in the sense meant by feminist economists, namely as a term which describes the labour (most often the unpaid domestic and care work undertaken by women) required to sustain the life of oneself and dependent others. Welfare settlements such as the British welfare state partly socialised social reproduction, through the provision of services such as state funded care for children and the elderly. The current crisis in social reproduction is particularly acute in respect of social and elder care, and care work has been progressively privatised and financialized.

[iv]Hall, “The Great Moving Right Show,” 2.

[v]Alston, “Visit to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.”

[vi]See Mark Townsend, “Secret Plan to Use Charities to Help Deport Rough Sleepers,” The Guardian, July 6, 2019,; Imogen Tyler, “Deportation Nation,” Journal for the Study of British Cultures25, no. 1 (2018): 25–41.

[vii]Sarah Marsh, “British Children Living in Poverty ‘could Hit Record High’ – Report,” The Guardian, February 20, 2019,

[viii]Patrick Kingsley, “Universal Credit Has Left Children so Undernourished Schools Are Offering Free Breakfasts,” The Independent, October 1, 2018,

[ix]Sally Weale, “Tired, Hungry and Shamed: Pupil Poverty ‘Stops Learning,’” The Observer, April 14, 2019,

[x]Michael Savage and Dulcie Lee, “‘I Regularly See Rickets’: Diseases of Victorian-Era Poverty Return to UK,” The Guardian, December 23, 2017,

[xi]Source NHS digital data

[xii]At the time of writing the British Paediatric Surveillance Unit team were due to report on research completed in 2017 on incidences of nutritional rickets amongst children and young people.

[xiii]May Bulman, “Life Expectancy of Poorest Girls in England Falls for First Time on Record since 1920s, Figures Show,” The Independent, 2018,

[xiv]Philip Alston, “Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights” (United Nations, November 16, 2018),



[xvii]Vickie Cooper and David Whyte, “Introduction: The Violence of Austerity,” in The Violence of Austerity(London: Pluto Press, 2017), 11.

[xviii]Cooper and Whyte, 11.

[xix]Juliette Garside, “Recession Rich: Britain’s Wealthiest Double Net Worth since Crisis,” The Guardian, April 26, 2015, also Andrew Sayer, Why We Can’t Afford the Rich (Bristol: Policy Press, 2016).

[xx]See Cooper and Whyte, “Introduction: The Violence of Austerity.”

[xxi]Patrick Butler, “Lives Will Be Lost If Plans to Slash Housing Support Services Go Ahead, Charities Warn,” The Guardian, February 20, 2019,

[xxii]Anthony Barej, “GMB Highlights 1 Million Public Sector Jobs Lost since 2010,” Public Finance: News and Insight for Public Finance Professionals, September 18, 2017,

[xxiii]SeeAkwugo Emejulu and Leah Bassel, “Women of Colour’s Anti-Austerity Activism,” in The Violence of Austerity, ed. Vickie Cooper and David Whyte (London: Pluto Press, 2017), 117–22.

[xxiv]Patrick Butler, “More than 8 Million in UK Struggle to Put Food on Table, Survey Says,” The Guardian, May 6, 2016,

[xxv]Cooper and Whyte, “Introduction: The Violence of Austerity,” 24.

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