Monday, 11 May 2015

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 Planning permission was originally approved but then withdrawn after objections.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...
‘Your amazing neighbours’ Yesterday evening I had a charity doorknocker. I’m always courteous but never encouraging with these people. It helps if they appear when I’m obviously cooking but it doesn’t help if they don’t get the message; nor if, when I mention that I give to certain charities in a deliberate way over periods of time, full stop, they don’t get that message either. True to the standard, this one used the phrase ‘I’m not asking for money’ almost immediately and then proceeded to suggest I gave 20p per day ‘like your amazing neighbours’. It’s possible he knows something I don’t, but I suspect not. If I’d had the patience, perhaps I might have asked him (a) where he lives, and (b) in what ways he has been amazed by my neighbours – things that have perhaps eluded me all these years. But unbeknown to this man and his well-trained phoney positivity, my neighbours are fairly special because a lot of informal mutual support goes on amongst us. There’s nothing unique about that of course, but it is noteworthy. What was striking about last night’s encounter was how it illustrates the gulf between informal neighbourly support and philanthropy. People think of them as close together on the pro-social spectrum; and our government likes to promote this notion because it suits them that philanthropy serves to reinforce disempowerment. But having a clown delivering this sort of patter on my doorstep will remain for me a symbol of the ideological contrast.

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