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.
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.