07 November 2011

Good offences make good neighbours.

Last Saturday I took part in the most exciting piece of participatory democracy in my area since the General Election: a public meeting hosted by a local councillor to decide on a local issue affecting my street. There was a sum of money to be spent on local improvements to an area of greenery, to make play provision for the neighbourhood’s children. Except the neighbourhood’s parents rather like the green area as it is, thank you very much, and feared the erection of gaudy swings would attract an Unwelcome Element into our midst, to sit, after dark, swigging cider, smoking fags and generally Being A Nuisance. Teenagers, in other words.

From the neutrality of living in a house not directly affected by such a prospect, it was vaguely amusing to see the mix of articulate NIMBYism and misdirected bluster as people who had lived comfortably side-by-side for nearly a decade were forced to get distinctly uncomfortable by expressing a public opinion in full view of their neighbours, the political equivalent of getting undressed with the curtains open in our sleepy, ordinary street. Having laid the issue of the swings to rest, the subject of the deeply unpopular New Bus Route suddenly resurfaced unexpectedly, like cider from a teenager’s gut, and just as unpleasant. It had been in the local paper that the council had changed its mind yet again and re-routed the bus through the same neighbourhood, but not after it had spent many thousands of pounds erecting bus stops on a different stretch of road. A separate meeting was needed for this fresh challenge, and so a date was timetabled, and everyone left with a renewed sense of vigour.

To the outsider this might all look like a terrific waste of money in times when that is the one thing no-one can afford: money earmarked for a park no-one wants, bus stops installed for a road with no buses, and a social club rented for an hour for the hoi polloi to collectively mutter to their elected busybody. And yet it may well be the best money spent in the area. In that hour I met more of my neighbours than I have ever done before and felt a real sense of common purpose. Ours is a typical modern British street, with houses built within walking distance of some amenities, but a drive away from others, a collection of castles for Englishmen to hide in. Though well connected and served by facilities, it is not built around anything – it has no heart in any sense of the word. And yet, by its fumbling incompetence, the local council had engendered a sense of purpose to the place for the first time in a decade.

In the same way people exhort the government to stimulate economic recovery through investment in public schemes, I’d suggest there is a social bonus to such spending that has mostly gone unnoticed. If a local authority wants to foster better community relations in tense times – and this summer’s scenes in London would suggest it might be worthwhile – there is a cheaper way of doing it than building another youth centre or commissioning trampoline classes for the under-privileged. Every council ward should announce the most outrageous planning scheme it can think of: nuclear power stations next to the school, digging up a football field to build young offenders’ institutes, a combined uranium mine and refugee crisis centre upstairs from ASDA. Before you could say Section 106 Agreement, you’d have neighbours chaining themselves together to block the street, organising cake bakes and raffles for lawyers’ fees, exchanging emails and maybe even smiles.

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