Yesterday I was working with my colleague Hugh Flouch with some residents on an estate in Wolverhampton. They're all tenants of Wolverhampton Homes, and like many local people have been there for a long time.
Coincidentally, when I got home, BBC4 were re-broadcasting Michael Collins's sensitive and insightful programme about council housing, The great estate, which you can see here (well worth the time, I'd only seen glimpses before). Collins records the sense of worth, permanence and belonging that characterised council housing at a time when it was considered 'a step up, not a step down'.
The residents Hugh and I have been working with articulate a sense of pride in the history of their (low rise) estate, and some bewilderment at the way in which this form of housing tenure and its associated culture has become socially discredited.
I'm not intending to offer an analysis of the programme here - check Dave Hill's article and links for that. Instead I want to draw on some remarks (at about 24 mins into the film) offered by one of the contributors, who grew up on an estate in Liverpool:
'All our friends lived there. All the people you went to school with lived there. But I think, because you knew all the kids, you also knew the parents and there was a lot of respect at that time. You always called the parents, 'Hello Mrs Burchall' - you always called them by their surname. You knew them but, more importantly, they knew you. And that's a powerful commodity when you're a kid, the fact that everybody knows who you are. I think that's maybe what separated the gangs of kids from the squares where we lived with the pockets of kids which hang around on street corners now who are totally anonymous.'
It's ok, I'm not suddenly about to go all soppy about some golden age of neighbouring. But I do want to try and get a sharper focus on the connection between localness (by which I mean, day-to-day occupation of the neighbourhood) and housing, as mediated by families. This is by no means entirely concerned with 'public parenting', but the forces which stimulate connection between children and their peers' parents can be exploited for other connections in the neighbourhood, contributing for example to neighbourly concern for isolated older people. Why were these kinds of social relationships seen as the default in many places but they are not now?
Here are some contributory factors that come to mind:
- routinised lifestyles and a high proportion of mothers as housewives
- lower car ownership, with playable streets
- more local employment and local schools, to which people walked or cycled
- availability of local trade, ditto
- ties that overlapped in the spheres of leisure and workplace as well as home environment
- a heritage of deference to authority (which depended often on unhealthy, disempowering relationships)
- housing that people valued.
I do not overlook the disadvantages of close-knit neighbourhoods, but for once I am not going to bang that particular drum.
Some of the subsequent social changes are desirable, some perhaps not. Some are subject to tweaking through policy influence; others, like the transition from an authority-based organisation society to an initiative-based network society, have too much momentum and are long-since out of reach of significant policy influence.
What strikes me, reflecting on the remarks quoted and the little list above (additional suggestions welcome), is that policy makers might sensibly reduce the rhetoric about greed and responsibilities, and focus more on the circumstances of life in neighbourhoods which help to establish and reinforce local social connections - like promoting local schools to which most of the pupils are expected to walk; genuinely discouraging large supermarkets, and supporting local trade; moving far more quickly to help the beleaguered local pub trade; actively and purposefully promoting local clubs and associations, and so on. It would be good to see schemes for playable streets and some serious efforts to reduce car use. And given the wretched plight of the housebuilding 'industry', let's give airtime to some ideas for reinventing social housing.