Tuesday, 21 April 2015

How many light-bulbs does it take to confiscate tiny social interactions? I’ve been reviewing the documentation for a number of Good Neighbour schemes recently, as part of a process and impact evaluation that I'm working on. The descriptions of what schemes offer is generally very consistent: in addition to the universal offer of transport to hospitals and shops etc, they often include reference to helping with basic household tasks like ‘changing a light-bulb’. It happens that I’ve also had builders in recently, and had to go with them to buy various bits and pieces including ceiling lights for the bathroom. The lights that have now been fitted have an estimated life, I’m told, of 35,000 hours. At an average of, say, an hour-per-day, they can be expected to last around 95 years. Hoorah for technological progress. But as I get older, there’s one less reason to have a volunteer come round and check on me while doing handy things about the house. What we have here is another variation on what I have called Kev's Automatic Door Principle, which notes that ‘there are distinct advantages to using technology to open doors for us: especially for people who use wheelchairs, also of course if you are overloaded with luggage; but automatic doors do not have to be held open for the lady with the stick just behind you, or for that bloke with the buggy just approaching. This is technology confiscating tiny social interactions.’ I mentioned another instance - external security boxes – here. And just to be clear, I am not suggesting that there aren’t technological advances helping us in the opposite direction.
What is the tone of the neighbourhood? A couple of weeks ago I turned on my phone at about seven o’clock and it rang almost immediately. BBC Radio London - had I seen the pictures in the papers of the candy-striped house in Kensington? They gave me a few seconds on air without time to say anything meaningful, but since then there’s been a new twist to the story. The owner, a property developer called Zipporah Lisle-Mainwaring, found that there had been objections from neighbours to her modest plans to demolish the building and replace it with a five-storey house, including a two-storey basement – nothing much, swimming pool, media centre, that sort of thing. Planning permission was originally approved but then withdrawn after objections. It is believed that the deck-chair décor was a statement of revenge at this decision. One resident was reported as saying ‘Without sounding very pretentious, it isn’t very Kensington.’ Of course it’s entertaining to hear about squabbles among the Haves, and it did strike me that the house might not look out of place in Amsterdam. Also I’d like to note that the owner didn’t paint her house: she had workers do it for her. But this story exposes serious issues of ownership and privacy which as a society we struggle to deal with. The first point to make is that if you create the cultural conditions in which houses are treated as commodities, you are going to get people treating houses as commodities. Logically this could mean total disregard for the interests of anyone else in the vicinity. Writing in the Sunday Times(£), India Knight argued that a neighbourhood ‘needs as much, if not more, maintenance than the housing it contains. If you want to live somewhere “nice” – clean, friendly, well-maintained, cheerful – then you need to play a part in making it so.’ What this means is that we need to do away completely with assumptions that the individual owner has the right to do what they like with their house. I’ve discussed this sort of thing before with regard to Christmas decorations and the constraints that home-owner associations can impose on residents. The space around the house affects others in all sorts of ways and their views have to be taken into account when changes are proposed, temporary or not. How we do that is another matter, and from the little I knew at the time of this story I couldn’t see how the authorities could stop or have stopped the resolute Kensington developer from having her house painted whatever colours she chose. Well it turns out that the house is situated in a conservation area and planning law has something called a Section 215 Notice, tada! One of these has been served (I love the language): “The owner has the right to appeal the notice by 5 June in the magistrates courts but, if no appeal is forthcoming, the owner must repaint the front elevation white and carry out repairs to the windows by 3 July. “If...

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