Saturday, 29 September 2012

Sand and the aggregate of local issues Over on New Start, John Houghton takes this image of sand, magnified 250 times, as a handy analogy: ‘To the disinterested observer, sand is deadly dull. Yet when you look much more closely, as this image allows us to do, its surprising richness and diversity is revealed. ‘The image makes me think of neighbourhoods because there’s a similar tendency in policy discourse to talk about the ‘ordinary families’ living in ‘typical streets’ that make up ‘your average neighbourhood’. From this lofty perspective, neighbourhoods must seem equally monotonous… ‘The reality is very different. If we take time to look, we can see that neighbourhoods are full of gems and shells, rocks and pearls. People with unexpected stories, landmarks loaded with significance, networks of friendliness and gossip.’ The analogy works nicely to expose the awkwardness of generalisation in policy: but we still have to address that problem. One place to start would be by dealing with the heavily centralised power base that dominates most policy discourse. An interview today with Simon Hughes on The World This Weekend provides an example. The point was made that the unpopularity of a government in power is commonly a direct cause of the demise of local councillors at local elections. The Lib Dems lost 40 per cent of their local elected members at the last local election. As Hughes conceded (at around 14:15) - ‘that’s very unfair on councillors.’ It’s also an inadequate foundation for localism, demonstrating how the dominant cause-effect reaction between centre and local is in the wrong direction. Localism will remain little more than a conceding gesture until we have circumstances in which central government is forced more consistently and realistically to take account of local politics. At the moment that tends only to happen when MPs feel threatened locally by constituents’ reactions to central government policy. If we had some way of packaging and presenting in the aggregate, to coin a phrase, the achievements, distinctiveness and concerns of local people through the legitimate channel of local democracy, and central government had no choice but to take it into account, we might start to see policy at a national level that reflects the fine-grained richness and diversity that John refers to. Long way to go, especially since the political party (aforementioned) most likely to push such an agenda has messed up a bit lately.
Placekeeping: bringing quality of local social life into the mix Social Life have just published a report developing a methodology to measure social sustainability in new housing developments: ‘The aim of this project is to create a practical and cost-effective way of measuring people’s quality of life and the strength of community.’ This could be significant because, as the report argues, ‘A new emphasis on social sustainability means thinking about placekeeping as well as placemaking. It requires us to recognise that some intangibles – the emotional relationships that people who live in and use a space develop – are as important as the hard infrastructure we deliver.’ (Be warned, at the moment some of the links say ‘download full publication’ but you may only get Part 1, which itself doesn’t appear to carry links to Parts 2 and 3. Part 1 gives the deceptive impression that it's a self-contained report). The first part seeks to demonstrate how the methodology as it stands could be applied, in this case to new developments, three of them in London. Since residents presumably moved in at roughly the same time, have similar issues to discuss, and a similar drive to get to know people, you’d expect levels of neighbourliness and satisfaction to be reasonably high for the first few years at least. Plus they just invested emotional energy in the move, so folk are more likely to be upbeat about the place. The housing provider has to really mess up to get bad marks early on. But the real point is the development and testing of a methodology that can bring the social quality of local life into the mix. The framework applied to the four localities has three ‘critical dimensions’: amenities and social infrastructure social and cultural life, and residents’ voice and influence. A fourth dimension, change in the neighbourhood, will be assessed in due course using data from the 2011 Census. These dimensions are populated with 13 indicators comprised of a total of 45 questions, mostly taken from or adapted from established surveys. The findings for the four study areas are based mainly on nearly 600 face-to-face interviews in the four sites, with site surveys and some interviews with professionals/practitioners, and benchmarked against London and national comparative data. The first thing that might strike you is that all the indicators, and indeed the three dimensions, are treated equally. This is not addressed in the main report but is covered in section 2: ‘It is probable that different questions have different significance in explaining social sustainability, and there is as yet no evidence available that provides any rationale for weighting.’ Weighting will have to wait. Fair enough. This is enormously thorough, detailed work, and further refinement could make it very strong. We will all have our doubts about some of the questions used but there's no doubting the soundness of the overall approach. Whether or not it becomes a standard tool as we strive to become a nation of housebuilders, it all adds to the drive to embed the factors of local social...

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