Love thy neighbour

The Chi-Lites: they recognised the importance of neighbourliness early on.

Neighbourhoods: More than building blocks of the Big Society?

This week at work I found myself exploring the concept of neighbourliness, what it means, and its potential for promoting both individual and community wellbeing.
 
To paraphrase psychedelic-soul exponents The Chambers Brothers, in many ways the neighbourhood is a concept whose time has come today. After all, the Government’s stated ambition with its Big Society agenda is to create neighbourhoods that are strong, attractive and thriving. It even goes as far as to describe neighbourhoods as the ‘building blocks’ for action to respond to challenging economic, social and cultural trends. Support for the neighbourhood is not limited to one political party, either. Lambeth Council, a Labour flagship, has been active in promoting its vision of  ‘the co-operative council‘, where citizens are encouraged to play a much greater role in their local communities.
 
And yet despite neighbourhoods and local communities being lauded by politicians from across the political spectrum speaking, their thinking on neighbourhoods seems to me under-developed. In the main, attention has tended to focus on the neighbourhood as a vehicle for achieving decentralisation of power from state to citizens and communities. Now don’t get me wrong, I am all for citizens playing a more active role in their communities. I am also a great believer in the power of co-design to produce solutions to the complex social challenges our society faces. Nonetheless, as we seek to expand the role of the neighbourhood in decision-making policy, I believe it is important that we do not take for granted that most basic benefit a neighbourhood provides, a sense of neighbourliness.
Getting to the heart of neighbourliness

But what do I mean by neighbourliness? You could do a lot worse than ask The Chi-Lites, whose song ‘We Are Neighbours‘ offers a perceptive take on neighbourliness in post-Civil Rights Act America. Alternatively, there’s always the dictionary, which defines neighbourliness as kind, friendly or sociable behaviour as befits a neighbour.
You’ll notice nowhere in that definition does it mention people coming together to run a local library that is threatened with closure or to join with Toby Young to establish a Free School in your local area. While I appreciate the experience of working together on an issue of common concern can bring people together an indeed foster a sense of neighbourliness, it does seem like we’re getting ahead of ourselves somewhat. In policy terms, it’s akin to tackling obesity by signing overweight people up for marathon training. Some people will undoubtedly rise to the occasion but an awful lot more will be left puffed out by the side of the road.
Who needs neighbours when you’ve got social media?

But surely in our 24/7, digitally connected lives old-fashioned neighbourliness isn’t as important as it used to be? After all, new technology means it’s easier than ever to keep in touch with the people we actually want to share our lives with. Plus, let’s face it, are our neighbours all they’re cracked up to be? Despite having my fair share of neighbourly strife in the 5+ years I’ve lived in London, I continue to believe in neighbourliness. For while I value greatly my friends from university, there’s not much point asking people in Newcastle to keep an eye on my flat when I’m on holiday. That job would fall to my neighbour Tony. And luckily, as this blog is about Policy, I’ve managed to track down some research to back up my anecdotal evidence. 

Between 2006 and 2010 the Local Wellbeing project brought together the Young Foundation, Professor Lord Richard Layard from the LSE, Local Government Improvement and Development and was supported by three local authorities. The project explored the impact of neighbourliness on local wellbeing and found:

  • Strong neighbourhood networks can have a significant impact on quality of life. Data from the British Household Panel Survey highlights a strong link between personal wellbeing and talking to neighbours.
  • Neighbourhood networks open up access to reliable informal childcare, neighbours who can look after your house when you are on holiday.
  • Neighbourly relationships can also reduce isolation and grow a sense of belonging.
Cultivating neighbourliness
So now that we are all sold on the merits of neighbourliness, what should we be doing to support and cultivate it in our local communities? As I mentioned earlier, a lot of attention has focused on establishing community involvement arrangements. Whilst this is an important aspect of building neighbourliness, I think it’s important to first get the basic right. Broadly speaking, this translates into two camps:

1. Protecting and increasing resources which help develop wide-reaching social networks
At present, public authorities are directing their (shrinking) resources at initiatives which support citizens and neighbourhoods to play a more active role in decision-making. Lambeth, for instance, has big plans for community-led commissioning, which aims to give citizens a great say over public services.
Deep spending reductions (or cuts, if you prefer), however, mean that softer or more casual activities that support the foundations of neighbourliness are suffering. You can’t blame public authorities. It’s not exactly an easy sell politically to find the money for neighbourhood fun days and coffee mornings when libraries are closing.  But without these things which help build community spirit, efforts to build community involvement risk being confined to a coalition of the willing.
Beyond this, we must continue our efforts to design our society in ways that support social interaction at the local level. This is likely to include action in every area of life, from the physical design of our housing and streets to supporting flexible ways of balancing work and life such as the New Economics Foundation’s case for a 21 hour working week
2.Thinking carefully before taking policy decisions that can damage social relationships within neighbourhoods
Changes to the rules on Housing Benefit will lead to families moving from areas of relatively high housing costs to relatively lower cost areas. Besides the impact on the families’ directly affected, this change and others like are likely to weaken, at least temporarily, neighbourly relationships and the attendant support they offer people. This and other measures in the area of welfare, including planned changes related to tenure in social housing, risk undermining the efforts that national and local government efforts to create strong neighbourhoods as the building blocks for social action.
Making the case for neighbourliness in 2012 and beyond
In the face of mounting economic gloom and with further deep reductions in local government funding expected the prospects for securing further public sector investment to support basic neighbourliness don’t exactly look great. Against this backdrop, I believe our collective effort should be directed at protecting existing social investments in neighbourliness and minimising the damage to communities from major changes to welfare spending.
Longer term, we need to find new ways of fostering neighbourliness that are less reliant on the vagaries of public funding. This means low to no cost solutions with enough flexibility for them to be shared with adopted by neighbourhoods far beyond where they were first developed. 

To get the ball rolling, here’s what I think we should be doing to make 2012 the year of neighbourliness. I’d be love to know what your thoughts are on neighbourliness and how we should be ecnouraging it.

1. Promoting the benefits of neighbourliness

In our busy lives, it can be easy to neglect our neighbours. But would that change if you regularly found out about real-life examples of neighbourly goodness going on all around you? Residents could be encouraged to use a  combination of offline and social media platforms to create an environment which values neighbourliness.

I think this would do two things. Firstly, it would be a way of thanking those people already behaving in neighbourly ways. Secondly, it would remind people of the very practical benefits of keeping in with your neighbours, thus encouraging us to make time to stop and chat when we see our neighbours. 

2. Helping people to get to know their neighbours

When neighbourliness was last high on the political agenda, in and around 2007 and 2008, there was support (and public funding) available for activities such as neighbourhood fun days, which were designed to foster a sense of neighbourliness. Besides the thorny issue of finding funding for these events, I feel we we would be better off helping people get to know each other in more organic, day-to-day settings.

With this in mind, I am keen to introduce people to the people they live alongside. This could take a number of forms. For instance, as a private renter I do not get invited to leaseholder meetings where the majority of other neighbours in my block meet face-to-face. For me and other renters like me I would value flexible, informal opportunities to meet my neighbours. Simple guidance on how to go about encouraging residents to set up socials would undoubtedly be a good start. I would also be interested in exploring how social media and location-based digital services could help facilitate neighbourly contact.

3. Encouraging social and community values

As well as encouraging neighbourliness and helping overcome the logistical barriers to getting to know your neighbours, we should also explore attitudinal barriers to neighbourliness. In my view, one of the biggest barriers to neighbourliness is the extent to which in our everyday lives we are focused on our individual, or at best, family concerns. For neighbourliness to flourish we  need to make it easy and attractive for people to connect with and contribute to to their communites.

Traditionally, volunteering has been promoted as a way for people to give back to their communities. Indeed the Young Foundation Local Wellbeing report notes community volunteering can increase individuals’ wellbeing along with their ability to empathise with others around them. Social enterprises such as Spots of Time (who I work for) promote flexible, fun and bite-sized local volunteering opportunities. If we are serious about promoting neighbourliness we should work to increase volunteering.

We should also support other ways for people to share their skills and experience with those around us. Time banking offers another model to support social and community forms of exchange. Perhaps most interestingly of all, The Amazings (who I have also supported, I must confess), help older people package and sell their skills and experiences to others. This model could be adapted to suit the neighbourhood setting and show that neighbourliness can also help residents pay their bills.

What London’s B&B bill tells us about the housing market

Sign of the times:  Councils’ use of Bed & Breakfasts as temporary accommodation remains high. Image: TripAdvisor.com

Yesterday I found myself working for thinkpublic on a research project exploring people’s experiences of homelessness. It’s still early days for the project so I can’t say too much about the fine-detail of the project. I can however share with you my thoughts on a an interesting (by Policy standards, anyway) fact I learned.

Fact of the day

I learned that one London local authority spent approximately £300,000 last year on nightly paid or ‘Bed & Breakfast’ temporary accommodation for homeless people. If this sounds like a lot of money that’s because it is. And yet compared to neighbouring boroughs, this authority is actually pretty good at placing its homeless residents in more appropriate and more cost effective forms of temporary accommodation.

High times living in the city

The high figure for Bed & Breakfast payments is, in large part, an expression of the pressures the London housing market is under. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that demand for housing in London vastly outstrips supply. This means private landlords can nearly always find people with jobs ready to snap up their rental properties. Local authorities are finding it increasingly difficult to persuade private landlords to lease their properties on a long-term basis for use as temporary accommodation. Consequently, local authorities are finding that the feel there is no other option available to them other than to rely on more expensive, short term Bed & Breakfast accommodation.

Re-framing the problem: a nation of Bed & Breakfast guests?

At this point  in a post the optimist in me would normally swing into gear and begin to talk about the opportunities which undoubtedly exist for local authorities to improve the way they purchase and manage temporary accommodation to both reduce costs and improve outcomes for individuals and families (Bed & Breakfast accommodation has long been recognised as being a less than ideal option for families, due to the disruption it causes and often the lack of adequate space/facilities for children and, indeed, the previous Labour Government introduced a target to end the placement of families in this this form of accommodation.. While it is very important we take action in this area, I’d like instead to leave you with some thoughts on what I feel the £300,0000 Bed & Breakfast figure says about our housing market as a whole and the need for radical change.

1. Although the £300,000 figure for Bed & Breakfast is attention-grabbing, it is largely a predictable, market-forces driven response to the chronic over-demand/under-supply of housing rather than an operational issue. The same is true of the eye-watering amounts spent on Housing Benefit. These figures show that the failure of the housing market exacts a cost on us all, whether or not we are in direct housing need.

2. The Coalition’s policies are, in my view, primarily focusing on attacking the symptoms rather than the underlying causes of the housing crisis. Putting aside ethical concerns over the impact on families and communities, in the long term measures such as reducing the amount paid in Housing Benefit and plans for a cap on the total amount of benefits any one family can receive may begin to exert some downward pressure on costs. They will not, however, address the fundamental problem of a lack of supply.

3. Instead of responding to the figure of £300, 000 for Bed & Breakfast by demanding immediate cost costing, we should be spurred on to think radically about how we meet people’s housing needs in future. Particularly in London, we cannot simply build our way out of the problem. Even if there was political and public consensus on the substantial investment required, we would quickly run up against physical limits on building more houses. Recognising the limits of traditional approaches, we can begin to explore new ways of living that reflect the realities of our society. I’m not going to pretend that this will be easy but, in the same way that there have been pubic conversations over retirement and social care, I think we need to have a more open discussion on housing and ‘the art of the possible’.

Overcoming the online echo chamber

I read the other day an interesting article on Slate which explored the belief that the Internet can create an online echo chamber, with us increasingly only hearing the views of people similar to us. In the interests of avoiding this, I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on housing, particularly in London.
 
Do we need to re-think our housing expectations? In response to the pressures on housing is it time to think radically about how we design and allocate housing? Or maybe you think we’d all be better off if we embraced B&B accommodation?

You can comment below or get in touch by email: clarke.francisg@gmail or on Twitter: @francisclarke

Working 9 to 5, not a way to make a living

Not enough hours in the day? That could be a thing of the past. Photo: Nick J Webb

Self improvement: It’s about time

 January is traditionally a time of New Year resolutions. It’s the time when we tell ourselves (and anyone around who will listen) that this is the year that we’ll mend some of our less noble personal traits and finally  commit ourselves to ‘the good life’ through a programme that combines equal measures of self denial and dogged self improvement.
It was this happy-go-lucky outlook that I got myself along to the LSE public discussion, ‘About Time: examining the case for a shorter working week’. What I discovered both reactivated my love of policy and induced a severe bout of self-loathing. Allow me to explain…
21 is the magic number
For those of you lucky enough to have avoided my pun-heavy Tweeting on the subject, About Time was an in-depth look at the case for a shorter working week, as set out by the New Economics Foundation (or nef) last year in their report, 21 hours. The report sets out a case for how a ‘normal’ working week of 21 hours could help to address a range of urgent, interlinked problems: overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life.

An impressive selection of speakers had been assembled for Wednesday’s event. In addition to 21 hour’s co-author and nef’s head of social policy, Anna Coote, who chaired proceedings, we heard from three notable academics with expertise in this field. First up was Juliet Schor, Professor of Sociology at Boston College, and author of Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth, and The Overworked American. Next up was Lord Robert Skidelsky, Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick. Lastly, Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at Surrey University, and author of Prosperity without Growth, reflected on the discussion.
If you will it, dude, it is no dream
Without wishing to go overboard on Economic theory, I think it’s worth pulling out a key (and exciting!) theme running throughout all of the speakers’ argument. Namely, there is nothing natural or inevitable about what is considered ‘normal’ today. The 40 or hours of today’s ‘normal’ working week results from a complex interplay of structural, technological and psychological factors. Speakers highlighted a diverse range of issues that shape our current working norms, from career penalties for people who request flexible working to the rise of instant communication and the role of advertising in ramping up our consumerist desires. Essentially, the message on moving towards a 21 hour week was akin to Walter in The Big Lebowski’s, “if you will it, dude, it is no dream”.
It takes two [or more points of view] to make a thing go right
Whilst I broadly agree with nef’s goal of achieving a better work-life balance and share their belief that many of the things that are presented as natural or unchangeable are in fact anything but, I found myself getting increasingly frustrated with About Time as the evening wore on. I think the main reason for this was the lack of critical challenge the shorter working hour faced. Perhaps somewhat naively, I had expected an examination of the case for a shorter working week to include contributions from people who felt a shorter working week was neither wise and/or achievable. I appreciate that accommodating people with a range of viewpoints can sometimes result in speakers engaging in Debating Society-style tactics. However, with strong chairing and a smattering of good will, I think Wednesday’s event would have been enlivened by differing points of view.

My other grumbles with the event largely stem from this lack of critical challenge. Perhaps because speakers felt everyone (both speakers and audience) were on the same page, there was little self-examination of the ‘good life’ presented in nef’s report. At times it felt as though we were being told that pure enjoyment was only to be found by reading a book (and preferably something high brow) whilst conspicuously avoiding doing anything as vulgar as consuming anything. I’m exaggerating for effect but not by much.  At times my frustration seeped over into self-loathing as I realised watched audience members who, let’s face up, probably aren’t a million miles away from me in terms of their politics and their patterns of consumption, seemingly responded uncritically to the speakers’ articulation of one possible good life as the good life.
Can we agree on what makes for a ‘good life’?
Lord Robert Skidelsky got it right when he said that making the case for a shorter working week is as much about developing a shared understanding of what the ‘good life’ is as it is the technical feasibility of reconfiguring our economic and social structures. It’s still only January so I am doing my utmost to remain positive and optimistic. Nonetheless, judging from the limited progress made even on emotive agendas such as child poverty in recent years, I feel proponents of the 21 hour week may be significantly under-estimating the scale of the challenge they face in seeking to build the consensus needed to move towards a 21 hour week.
Positivity is the key in the lock
As I draw my first blog post of 2012 to a close I feel it is important to keep my grumbles regarding About Time evening in perspective. I am extremely grateful for the LSE for hosting the event for providing members of the public with an opportunity to engage with exciting new ideas. I also want to say thank you to nef and all the speakers for having the courage and determination to imagine that a different world is possible. I will certainly try to keep this thought in mind as I make my way in 2012. I will also try to get along to some more of LSE’s public events this year and I would encourage you to give them a go, too.
Pop goes the 21 hour week
Lastly, all this talk of a shorter working week is perfectly fine but what would be the consequences for popular music? I’ll leave you with a few of my thoughts: 

A Hard Day’s Night – The Beatles. This would be first to go. 


    Working 9 to 5 – Dolly Parton. Sorry Dolly, you’ll have to retire this one.

      Get Rich or Die Tryin’ – 50 Cent. Okay, this is an album title rather than a song but it’s too good to leave off. Curtis Jackson definitely isn’t a suitable role model for the 21 hour week.

      The Velvet Underground – Sunday Morning. A classic piece of hazy pop. But would Sunday morning hold such a prized place in a 21 hour working week? Anyone for Thursday morning?

       

      Can’t buy me love – The Beatles. This one would be acceptable in the new world of the 21 hour week.