Monday, 23 June 2014

Perhaps we should stop trying to create communities - mixed or otherwise.


I live in a mixed community. Socially, in terms of income and, to a degree, ethnically. But the real magic about the place is that it wasn't 'created', there wasn't a great masterplan that would mean Cullingworth had a variety of housing - flats, terraces, semi-detached and detached, old and new, large and small. Nor was there a grand plan to make sure that the village had about 20% of its stock available for social rent. Yet somehow we've managed to have that mixed community that makes Cullingworth such a fine place.

So it does rather concern me that the solution to some communities - whether Belgravia or Easterhouse - not being 'mixed' is to chain up the wrecking ball and knock stuff down. It's as if we're channelling some petulant child troubled by the failed sandcastle - kicking out at our failures. So, as Peter Matthew's describes:

An area of predominantly social housing is demolished, replaced with a mixed-tenure community, with a net reduction in the numbers of social housing units and an increase in rents. These developments intend to, and do, push the poor and marginalised out of our cities.

We have done this time and time again. Even Cullingworth wasn't immune to slum clearance - back in the 1960s the then Bingley Urban District Council bought up the back-to-backs in the village (paying an average of £43 pounds - no I haven't missed off any noughts - for each house) and flattened them. For a few residents there were new council houses in the village but for most the new Woodhouse Estate at Keighley beckoned.

I make this observation to provide a context for the assertion that knocking stuff down and starting again probably isn't the right solution - however despairing we may be at the prospects for residents of Holme Wood or Bracken Bank (these great peripheral estates has such appealing names). Nor are we served by the common assertion that somehow the depressing dreich of the council estate is responsible for the failings of that estate's residents.

Indeed, just as health inequality is caused by the mobility of the healthy and wealthy, places of multiple deprivation come about because they are the only places where the poor and ill can afford to live. And we know that, at the first opportunity, those poor and ill folk will up sticks and head for a nicer place - indeed the most ambitious will leave before they cease being poor and ill in the expectation that another place, however tough, will provide the opportunity for escape.

This is why people from the other side of the earth will crowd into unsanitary, damp and dangerous accommodation in Bethnal Green - the prospects are better than in Sylhet or Timisoara. And why young people from Barnsley and Huyton head to London, prepared to pay through the nose for a shoe box and have a job. The problem is that, once these places start to work, the authorities decide they must act - and acting means enforcement, slum clearance, regeneration.

Nor - however cute the argument might be - is there a case for turning the approach upside down and:

...demolish large areas of high-value owner-occupied housing and replace it with high density, socially-rented housing...

This suffers from the same problem as slum clearance except instead of kicking at our failed sandcastle we run over and trample on some other kid's spectacular sand version of Versaille. Such demolition utterly fails because - like slum clearance - it doesn't really face up to the problem but rather neatly sidelines that problem. We get action for the sake of action, a sort of Gentilean approach to regeneration rather than asking why it is that we residualise social housing and marginalise the residents of social housing. Or for that matter why it costs £650,000 to buy a 3-bed terrace in Hackney.

The truth - or at least the beginning of truth - is to remember where I started: mixed communities should be places of the willing rather than creations of the planner. Indeed, more often than not, our planning disrupts that process of community building. Indeed, as Jane Jacobs remarked about that godfather of the planned community, Ebenezer Howard:

As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planner in charge.

Every day I see examples of planners disrupting people's innovation because it fails to fit their rules - from little examples like not allowing people to keep goats in Detroit or getting a couple to demolish their rather beautiful woodland home, to the grand plans that make land too dear and too precious for the growth of wonderful communities.

So to return to Cullingworth. There's an application from Barratt Homes to build 233 houses on the edge of the village. It's a brownfield site, it's not in the green belt and Cullingworth's a nice place to live. The development will happen - all we really want as a village is for the developer to build us a new village hall. We'll cope with a classic estate development because the remaining 1200 homes are so diverse and we're watching to see what happens to other sites in the village - some homes for rent maybe, a few more apartments and some smaller houses for younger couples.

But in other places - already cursed by planners - we'll see 'urban extensions' into the green belt that consist of vast swathes of suburban sameness, the very opposite of the mixed community we want to create. And this, like so much else about Britain's housing (from poor space standards to the price of housing land) can be laid firmly at the door of our planning system. Even the much maligned housebuilding companies exist in their current form because of the manner in which land markets are skewed by the, often bizarre, decisions of planners.

In the end regeneration isn't about knocking stuff down. Cullingworth wasn't created by demolition and rebuild (the land the back-to-backs occupied prior to their demolition remains largely - the existing and ageing village hall aside - open land) but rather by the interaction of its residents, by the fact that there's a chance for most of staying here and by the initiative of businesses and individuals. Perhaps - and there are many places like Cullingworth - we should restart our search for community by looking at these villages and learning about how they stay mixed.


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