Friday, 03 October 2008

Living in interesting times As the overlap of housing crisis and economic crisis blurs and separates like lights in the rain, political hopefuls agonise over the "walk on by society". It no longer seems simplistic to note the connection between an economic system which encourages buying-to-let on the basis of greed, and neighbourhoods with dangerously low levels of informal social control. It all feels so depressingly predictable - not the economic crisis in its severity perhaps, but the almost visible connection between mindless consumer capitalism and the feeling of lost civility. It's obvious enough: if as a society we systematically encourage antisocial values and behaviour (I'm referring to ASB as practised by financiers) and we don't know those around us and don't trust them, prosocial behaviour and social norms are harder to establish, identify with, and reassert. John Harris, no relation, has a detailed and lengthy piece in today's Guardian on 'the rise of exploitative landlordism' and the drastic lack of housing, which includes the thoughts of one Rita Giles, who has lived in her three-bedroom council flat for 32 years. Rita 'stayed put, and watched as a once-solid neighbourhood has been replaced by an ever-changing community of people who often appear to be simply passing through.' "The people who bought the properties don't live in them any more," she says. "This is the biggest problem. They buy them, they do them up, then they sell them, and they get rented out. A lot of them go and live abroad." "Now," she says, "you might have two or three families in one three-bedroom flat. I've seen that happen on our estate. We get a lot from Africa. A lot of short-term people come from Kosovo. The problem is, any sense of community is utterly eroded. Once, you could walk down the road and everybody who spoke to you, you'd know who they were. People still speak to me: they'll say 'Good morning', and I'll say 'Good morning' back, because it's in my nature to do so. But I couldn't tell you who they are, because with 95% of them, it's the only time I've seen them, and I might not ever see them again. They just disappear." Another respondent in the article talks about the homes bought and re-let: "People don't take pride in them, because you've got this six-month transit-camp situation. There's no community cohesion, the neighbours don't know each other..." If the recession brings an end to rampant property speculation in a time of wretched levels of homelessness - and an end to the gormless glut of tv property programmes - that at least will be a blessing. There are two ironies in today's news which only seem to bind these themes even more strangely. The first is that the person who was killed when he went to the aid of a 35-year-old homeless Lithuanian man in Norwich was a banker with a company which manages assets worth £133bn. The second is that just as members of the conservative party reflect on...

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