Monday, 31 July 2006

Transience and information about neighbourhoods The DCLG's long-awaited report on frequent movers, published last week, is here; summary here. It hasn't yet moved in to the Social Exclusion Unit's website which is being redecorated. The report won't blow your head off but it's a sound plotting of the issues. When I see the kinds of statistics that they have pulled together - eg that nearly 10% of residents in New Deal for Communities areas have moved three times in the last five years - I wonder how long we can go on in a state of ignorance about the real impact of this phenomenon. High levels of transience make neighouring piecemeal and unpredictable: weak connections among neighbours give rise to all sorts of other social problems, to which this government is far more alert than any of its predecessors. The initiative is significant but merits a stronger message than this report offers. When you talk to experienced people working in local government they know the vulnerable areas and the difficulties they have with transient populations. Both professionals and residents sense that there may be a tipping point for any neighbourhood, in terms of population stability, and of course this is influenced by and influences a range of other factors such as design, employment, access to health and education, availability of transport etc. So how do we get enough systematic knowledge to be able to identify the tipping point? We need to be much better at detecting trends in the various factors, using measures of disorder, empty and unlet properties, levels of GP registration and so on. The Moving on report quite rightly identifies part of the solution in data collection and information systems: unfortunately that is a familiar refrain for government aspirations followed by expensive failure. On the Havelock estate in Southall, residents claim that many of the garages are owned by people who do not live on the estate. I've often been told that they're routinely occupied by 'crackies.' I observe that many are bricked or boarded up, and many are used for dumping rubbish. There was recently a so-called 'consultation' meeting with residents about the garages on the estate: it transpired that the landlord doesn't know how many garages there are, and there is no register of who lets, sub-lets or uses them. In the scheme of things, this is hardly surprising. All councils and social landlords have limited budgets and they will have many issues that take priority over things like registering use of garages. But I'm clear that when residents sense a weakening community presence and looming disorder, precisely this sort of factor - unknown outsiders making dubious use of a local resource - is part of their unsystematic reckoning. If we don't have systematic information about change in our neighbourhoods, the least we can do is to listen to local people's expressions of concern about it. Ideally, we should not only be doing that but at the same time working with residents to collect data to monitor the health of...

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