Tuesday, 14 April 2009

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Lifetime neighbourhoods in recession: what about people? A couple weeks ago I was at a debate organised by the International Longevity Centre (ILC-UK) on the lifetime neighbourhoods agenda in the current economic climate. ILC have published a collection of essays to reassert the importance of this agenda, which is based on what in my view was one of the best government policy papers of recent years, written by Ed Harding. The debate covered all the hardware stuff thoroughly - all the issues around building, planning, mixed use, transport connections and so on. Discussants understandably put a lot of effort into emphasising the need to keep a focus on quality environments. The mantra of 'the flight to quality' was served up for the converted to repeat, to strengthen our determination not to let present underfunding give rise to shoddy construction and uninhabitable townscapes in the future. Quite right too. But we badly needed a perspective on local social relations to make these prospects of lifetime neighbourhoods seem worth realising. Understanding how to make mixed use neighbourhoods function in an ageing and diversifying society is already challenging us desperately. We don't invest properly in intergenerational work or community development, while continuing to plan new settlements apparently without thought for local amenities Will lifetime neighbourhoods be another agenda which gets stripped down simply to those things the accountants know how to measure? - bricks, heating, journeys...? Well, maybe not. Absent on the day but present in the published volume, up pops JRF's John Low with a solid essay which I strongly recommend. He reminds us that there are good reasons to expect that deprived neighbourhoods will decline faster than more affluent ones and that 'housing solutions alone will not solve the multiple problems that beset our worst neighbourhoods'. Of course financial cuts are threatened all over the public, voluntary and community sectors. But here, with my emphasis added, are three 'rays of hope' offered by John Low: Community empowerment has risen steadily up the agenda of all political parties, including a plethora of initiatives from the current administration in England. Especially in local authorities that have taken this seriously, good practice is reasonably well embedded and may prove harder to cut. Also, as suggested above, localised and affordable neighbourhood management approaches seem very much the best bet for ‘recession proofing’ deprived areas; and such initiatives need underpinning with good community work. Over the last 10-15 years independent voluntary and community sector bodies have increased their national profile and collective voice. This too may help to act as a brake on cuts. We should also not forget that many development trusts, churches, other faith groups, councils for voluntary service and schools are playing key roles in supporting neighbourhoods. Everything possible should be done in the present climate to sustain their work. Finally, although institutions are often criticised as having poor memories, the serious social disorders that broke out in the 80’s and 90’s in a number of very deprived areas will not have been forgotten. Nobody will want a repeat of...

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