Saturday, 17 July 2010

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Nudging neighbouring from research towards policy Friday saw the launch of Gumtree's research into the 'state of neighbourhoods,' carried out by Fresh Minds and trailed here. I'm told that the data will be made available and when anything comes up I'll point to it. The NANM's Ben Lee chaired a small gathering of a fascinating mix of invitees, for a wide-ranging discussion about the implications of the findings, how they shape up alongside other knowledge, and what contribution can be made by a company like Gumtree. To recap briefly on the context: the well-publicised recent Co-Ops research claimed a substantial decline in neighbourliness in the UK over the past 28 years. The Gumtree study seems to challenge that: 59 per cent of their respondents said that they had 'tried to be more neighbourly' in the last 18 months. I don't think I care particularly if neighbourliness has gone up, gone down, or stayed the same, unless that means something. Logically I'd expect it to have gone down a little (if measured using some base index that would have to be a few decades old) until about 18 months ago, when we began to hear echoes of new (or rather refreshed) social values in response to climate change, the recognised shambles of Thatcherism, and the exposed hollow morality of small clusters of bankers and of members of parliament. I'm more interested in understanding historical changes in what we expect neighbourhood relations to do for us (hence my questioning of the usefulness of an outdated base definition). For instance, increasingly more of us satisfy more of our emotional and communicative needs remotely, using technologies; and at the same time, many more of us are living in single-person households, so there are fewer causes of connection with neighbours than there might have been previously, and we need to put more thought into devices which allow appropriate encounters. This doesn't mean neighbouring has to be formalised in any sense: attempts to do that, eg through 'good neighbour' agreements, are going to have limited impact at best. So what is the role for policy? Neighbouring matters to policy because the neighbourhood is the default environment for socialisation; it's still the locus of response to urgent need for many situations and for mobilisation against perceived local threats; and it's a natural nursery for the development of prosocial behaviour. If people don't learn and practice civil behaviour and respect in their immediate surroundings, it's that much harder to accomplish elsewhere. But policy struggles to do more than declaim against the perceived absence of neighbourliness - meaning, negative social phenomena perceived to be in part the consequence of weak and fractured local connections. Policy neither recognises the contribution that neighbouring makes as a platform for collaborative behaviour, nor finds ways to stimulate it. The vague sense resonating in policy over the past ten years and now in Big Society, that there's something important about the local context, is still way out of focus. For example, policy does little to counter planning and transport decisions...

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