Community voice, holiday homes and some bananas

Following the concerns I expressed about some aspects of localism last week, an example cropped up near to where I live.   North-East Fife, where I live, is a tourist area, but when I was looking for adapted facilities for a family member with severe mobility problems, there wasn’t anywhere –  too many hotels are in old, inaccessible buildings.   I eventually got something in a modern hotel several miles away.  This weekend, it was reported that a local farmer had finally got permission to build specialist holiday accommodation for people with disabilities, after four years of trying.  The local Community Council objected at first that a two storey building would dominate the view (you can see the monstrous edifice that was rejected in an early report here; it looks almost like a house, heaven forfend).  Then they objected that there would be too much traffic; then that the entrance wouldn’t be clearly signposted, and so on.  I accept that the development as approved is prettier than the first proposal – but should it have taken four years?

It’s difficult to tell what part reactions to disability played in this.  It may look superficially like an example of discrimination, but I suspect that, without the representations from organisations concerned with disability, the development might not have been approved at all.  Most of rural Scotland doesn’t have many NIMBYs, because there are too few people ever to get near to someone’s back yard, but we do have bananas, which stands for ‘building absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone’.

Communities of place: some dated and dangerous arguments

I’ve been attending an ESRC seminar on localism and social housing.  Some of the arguments I’ve been hearing about localism, particularly from England, are troubling.

Part of the problem is that the arguments for community are dated.  There was a time when people’s lives were centred on the neighbourhood; people would have their families, social contact, work and leisure activities all in the same place.   Times have changed; this kind of lifestyle is increasingly rare.  The communities where most of these things still all happen together are unusual; there are exceptions, but they are likely to be isolated or excluded to some degree.   The most deprived areas are marked by transient populations, empty property and poor facilities.  It does not make good sense, then, to build policy on the assumption that there must be a geographic community in place.

There are three good arguments for focusing on communities and neighbourhoods – they’re also the reasons why I’m still engaged with community development.  The first is that areas matter.  Some areas have serious problems – security, ill health, environmental problems, lack of facilities.  They can be difficult and damaging for the people who live there – not just for poorer people, but everyone.

The second is that wherever people are disadvantaged, they need the kinds of support, facilities and opportunities that will help to make their lives better.  A great deal can be done at the local level – providing amenities, activities, opportunities, creating jobs, increasing income and helping to care.

The third is that people need a voice.  Voice is not the only thing that’s needed for democratic governance – others include rights, accountability and empowerment – but the less people are heard, the more important it is that they should be.

The localism agenda has taken arguments that were intended to help in disadvantaged areas and extended them to a wide range of others – among them, rural villages, commuter suburbs and gated communities.  In the process, the arguments for community development have been twisted out of shape.  Reinforcing the power and influence of relatively privileged communities may improve their circumstances, but it’s often at the expense of others – localism can become a mechanism for exclusion.  Listening to other people is basic to democracy; but allowing particular groups to dominate the discourse, to shut out  outsiders or to veto measures to help others, can be undemocratic.   The assumption of community in such cases is not just dated, it’s potentially dangerous.

Why should we save Hartlepool?

The Economist proposes this week that we should shut down some of Britain’s failing cities:  places like Middlesborough, Burnley, Hull and Hartlepool.   The basic argument is that they can’t be saved; that keeping them going is expensive and hopeless; that the best thing the residents can do for themselves is to move out; that the best thing for government to do is to let big cities grow while these places shrivel and die.

Why should we save towns like Hartlepool?  There are three main reasons.  First, it’s a decent place to live.  All right, I’m prejudiced: I lived in Hartlepool for two years, and I rather liked it.  It’s well located by the coast, there’s good access to major facilities in the big towns, it’s reasonably well served by rail and road, and some parts are lovely even if the economic decline isn’t.    I understand why people want to live there – and why some of them wouldn’t be dragged from it if they were chained to tractors trying to pull them away.   The second reason is it’s there.  That means it has its own communities (if you know Hartlepool, you’ll know why that’s in the plural) , the places where people live, grow up, live with their families, meet their friends and form the ties of everyday life.   That’s precious, and difficult to replace.   The third is that it has a wide range of valuable resources – houses, roads, infrastructure, schools and so forth – which would otherwise have to be replaced.  Let’s remember, because it’s something no government has focused on for forty years, that Britain has a thumping great shortage of houses.  The idea that we should board up and walk away from tens of thousands of secure, well maintained homes, to go to places where there aren’t any,  is absurdly profligate.

How can we save a town?  It needs money, because without investment in the areas, and money for people to support business and commerce, the decline will go on.  It needs industry, because we have to move the work and the economic activity to where the people are – not the other way around.  And it needs people, who will come to an area because it is a good place to live, not just because – or even if – they work there.

It’s a tall order – but if anything, it should be easier than it used to be.  One of the ways that the world has changed is that people don’t need any more to live, work and socialise in the same area.   If we can get people living on Teesside to live on large, isolated private estates with little more than access to the motorway (you know where I mean),  we should certainly be able to get them to live in established communities with good facilities.

The argument that we should leave towns to wither and die comes from the laissez-faire idea that anything that happens in an economy is natural and we have to bend with it.  It assumes that people don’t matter; it’s thoroughly bad economics.  And the people who would suffer most would be  those with least access to the alternatives, those least able to afford housing elsewhere –  just the people who would be hurt most by this policy.

Rural Scotland?

Is “rural Scotland” the right focus for policy? The OECD report on rural Scotland  lumps three different parts of Scotland together. Part is the urban hinterland, described as “accessible” rural space. Part – the smallest part, in terms of the population – is the kind of area that is most often represented as “rural”, rooted in agriculture and the activities associated with the countryside. But in terms of the distribution of population and communities, the largest part of what the OECD is treating as “rural” is not agricultural, but coastal. Scotland’s coastal areas face a complex set of economic and environmental issues, that have little to do with conventional understandings of the rural environment. They take in issues like energy, mineral extraction, tourism, cultural activity, military activity and the ports. The largest single industry is the distribution network.

The key problems relate to isolation. The services and facilities in many coastal areas are often desperately inadequate. Communities need enough population to support basic services. People want access to shops, banks, post offices, schools and medical facilities; these facilities can only survive if there are enough people to keep them going.

However, development, which is difficult enough in isolated areas for practical reasons, is locked by a combination of opposition from landowners, exclusionary communities and planners. Much of Scotland is radically underdeveloped. The high cost of housing reflects a market in scarce supply – and where supply will always be scarce unless we take the fetters off. Where there is not enough housing, there are not enough people. We all want sustainable communities, but no community is sustainable if it is not also viable. If the coast is not built up, the communities will die.