Community Hostile

Mixed tenure communities have been seen as a panacea to social breakdown, but what do we do when communities are openly hostile to diversity?

Mixed tenure communities have been seen as a panacea to societal woes, but what do we do when communities are openly hostile to plans for diversity?

The Story

Social housing tenants do not have the best public reputation. They are often depicted as benefit-scrounging, work-shy, unproductive and anti-social individuals, alternately infesting and haunting run-down estates like desperate grotesques from Jim Cartwright’s Road, an image in no way helped by recent controversial ‘poverty porn’ television programmes such as Benefit Street or How To Get A Council House.

Such a depiction is, of course, wrong; despite the irony in stating as much, most generalisations are. Still, the spectre of fear has never needed a basis in reality to possess power, and this spectre has recently passed over a new housing estate in Cumbria where the current residents are, apparently, “living in fear” at the prospect of social housing tenants moving in nearby.

Fear at Forgehill

Forgehill Park in Wokington is part of 92-property development by house builder Persimmon Homes, who have constructed over 40 homes at the site. Now they are looking to develop further properties on the site – specifically, eighteen two-bed flats – but this news has reportedly outraged nearby residents who are concerned the new flats will lead to an influx of “undesirable” social housing tenants. Such is the outcry that a 35 signature petition against the development has been completed by residents.

“When I paid nearly £200,000 for my property, I did not sign up to these plans and I am really concerned that this will affect the price of my property in the future.” – Michael Bell, resident

The initial concern of residents seems to belong less to worries of moral degradation from “undesirable” tenants and rather to seeing their homes as investments – rather than homes – which are under threat from a potential mixing of tenure. No home stands as an island unto itself (unless you’ve bought a lighthouse, I suppose…), and the value of property rests not just on its foundations but on the properties in the surrounding area. The fear here is that the new flats will bring down the value of the existing properties, although no reasons for why this might be the case are given. As long as all the properties are well-maintained (and there is no reason to presume they wouldn’t be, remembering that new developments should not need as much maintenance as older properties given their recent construction) houses should not devalue because of the close proximity of flats, regardless of tenure; certainly London doesn’t suffer this problem. Of course, London is London, but if location is the prime source of value then the homes at Forgehill Park will not suffer for other properties being built in the area.

But the argument of devaluing investment is covering a deeper prejudice:

“If more housing is required then why not have specific housing schemes built to accommodate those in need and allow those of us who work hard to make lifestyle choices, like buying a new home, to live without the worry of being subjected to the behaviours and attitudes of people who have no regard for others and their property?” – Geoffrey Donaldson, resident

The implication in the quote above is that purchasing a property is a lifestyle choice, one that is at odds with those who live in social housing. These social tenants, by virtue of not choosing to purchase a property, will apparently bring attitudes and behaviours that disrespect property and anyone who owns property. Because…that’s what people who don’t buy property do, right?

Wrong. A great many ridiculous assumptions are made my Mr Donaldson. Ignoring the assumption that not buying a home is a lifestyle choice – and not a restriction people find themselves in due to economic recession, a slumped jobs market, poor pay, rising relative costs of living, difficulty borrowing from banks, or a host of other socio-economic factors that restrict social mobility – there is no basis to assume that because you cannot, or even choose not, to buy a home you will, consequently, possess behaviours and attitudes demonstrably disrespectful to those that can and do.

The views are clearly inaccurate, but their impact is real nonetheless. Despite the developers’ intentions, it would appear that the home-owning residents of Forgehill Park do not want their development to become one of mixed tenure.

Mixing It Up

Housing developers seem now to find themselves in a ‘Catch 22’ situation when it comes to tenure of developments. At Forgehill attempts to diversify the stock and tenure of a site are met with outrage and resistance by incumbent residents, yet when no requirement is stipulated for the inclusion of affordable or social housing, such as in the government’s recently proposed new garden cities, there is outcry from the media and opposition about the failure to include provision of such housing.

Mixed tenure developments have long been part of government strategy for building communities and regenerating local areas. The idea is that mixed tenure developments will mitigate the pooling of social deprivation; by having a variety of property types and tenures in a single development, we avoid the build up of ‘slum estates’. Neighbourhood image is supposedly improved – the idea being that home owners will take better care of their properties, being personal investments, and that pride in the home will carry over to surrounding neighbours who will likewise look after their properties accordingly in order to ‘keep up’ with the neighbours and maintain their status in the development – while population ‘churn’, the rapid changing in tenants, is quelled. All of this results in a ‘sustainable community’.

There are problems with the above, admittedly potted, view of mixed tenure developments. It assumes that home owners are natural role models that residents of all other tenure will necessarily wish to aspire to. There are problems too for landlords, social and otherwise, in mixed tenure sites – by spreading out the stock across a number of developments, they lose the logistical benefits and savings gained by having stock tightly packed together.

Further, criticisms can be drawn against the idea that mixed tenure developments will tackle social deprivation – the causes of poverty are not being addressed; rather the symptoms are simply being spread across a wider area. As Brian Williams notes in his paper on mixed tenure housing developments, “dispersal of poverty is cheaper than cure.”

Despite there being no clear consensus in research about the effectiveness of mixed tenure developments, they continue to be seen as a panacea for social stagnation; that is, they are seen as the tinder that will re-ignite the concept of community.

And that is a problem in itself.

The C-Word

“Community has become a cult, an object of warm-and-fuzzy ritual worship for politicians of all stripes, academics and the rapidly expanding new class of social commentators. Nobody can get enough of the C-word.” – Gibson and Cameron, 2001

The idea of community has become increasingly important both politically and operationally in the realm of social housing. Politically it has been seized as heralding the passing of the ‘crude individualism’ of the 80’s (Blair, 1998). Encouraging effective ‘community’ has become a social and political panacea (Borzel, 1998; Adams and Hess, 2001; Gibson and Cameron, 2001) and increasingly regarded as a prerequisite for improving the effectiveness and legitimacy of policy outcomes (Caddy, 1999; Sanderson, 1999).

And yet, what we understand and mean by ‘community’ is not universally accepted, and certainly does not necessarily carry the oft-supposed connotation of ‘togetherness’ that politicians and developers are seeking to create through mixed tenure housing sites. Indeed, diversity is often not seen as conducive to social cohesion – rather, a sense of uniformity is created by drawing us-them barriers within a community. While insider-outsider distinctions may be ‘morally repugnant’ (Bowles and Gintis, 2002), many groups define themselves by that which they are not; the other.

“Community will feel like a besieged fortress being continuously bombarded by (often invisible) enemies outside while time and again being torn apart by discord within” – Bauman, 2001

The specialisation of labour (arising during the industrial revolution), globalisation, the vast growth of informatics (both in terms of delivery method, speed, and variety), post-modernism and the rise of consumer-driven individualism have broken any sense of sameness or uniformity we might have experienced in traditional understandings of ‘community’. All these factors create a world in which nothing is static, setting fear and uncertainty at the heart of identity. Gripped by this we make ourselves feel safe by drawing new boundaries, by signifying who belongs and who does not so as to re-establish a sense of permanency; of security. Communities are created, therefore, not by the unification of diversity, but by the drawing of boundaries, and the constant reaffirmation of those boundaries: “Homely cosiness is to be sought, day in and day out, on the front line” (Bauman, 2001)

Conclusion: Strange Bedfellows

We are not to moralise: the community hostile model is not an ethical matter but an observation and interpretation of fact. But by seeing mixed tenure communities not as panacea for societal woes but as the front-line of people’s everyday exclusions we can better understand what drives communities like Forgehill Park to react as they do. While the fear of residents at Forgehill towards potential social housing tenants is misplaced, it is also understandable when viewed through the above post-modern lens: as a small, burgeoning community they have defined who they are by drawing lines in the sand – if you buy a home, you are one of us; if you choose not to buy a home, you are against us.

So, how to proceed? Allerdale Council planning officers have said that Persimmon Homes’ development application will deliver a ‘variety of homes’, so the mixed tenure development looks set to proceed regardless…and I would support that.

The problem with social engineering and community creation is that community cannot be created by outsiders – we can’t force tenants of different tenure to embrace each other. Communities will define themselves. What we can do is provide opportunities for a wider range of community definition. If you only build home ownership developments, the communities that develop there will be limited in scope; by building mixed tenure developments, there is more potential for a wider range of communities to emerge.

We can’t control what they might be; the people within the community will do that. But if boundaries are to be formed anyway, by means of tenants creating identity, then maybe we should build developments that will force tenants of different tenure and property type to create those boundaries together. They may initially see each other as enemies, but there will be greater fear and uncertainty outside the development….and the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

References

Adams, D. & Hess, M. (2001), ‘Community in Public Policy: Fad or Foundation?’, Australian Journal of Public Administration Vol. 60 No. 2: 13-23

Bauman, Zygmunt (2001), Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World, Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Blair, T. (1998) Speech to the Labour Party Conference, 29 September

Borzel, T.A. (1998), ‘Organising Babylon – On the Different Conceptions of Policy Networks’, Public Administration 76: 260-283

Bowles, S. & Gintis, H. (2002), ‘Social Capital and Community Governance,’ The Economic Journal, Vol. 182 No. 483: F419-F436

Caddy, J. (1999), ‘Engaging the citizen leads to better results,’ Management Forum Vol. 5 No. 3, Paris: OECD

Gibson, K & Cameron, J (2001), ‘Transforming Communities: Toward a Research Agenda,’ Urban Policy and Research Vol. 19, No. 1: 7-2

Sanderson, I. (1999), ‘Participation and democratic renewal: from ‘instrumental’ to ‘communicative rationality,’ Policy and Politics Vol. 27 No. 3: 325-41

Homeowners terrified by prospect of ‘undesirable’ social housing tenants, 24Dash.com, Online: http://www.24dash.com/news/housing/2014-05-15-Homeowners-terrified-by-prospect-of-undesirable-social-housing-tenants?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter#.U3d6EdJdXw8, Available: May 2014

New garden cities not required to include low-cost homes, minister says, The Guardian, Online: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/apr/21/new-garden-cities-low-cost-homes, Available: May 2014

Mixed Tenure, Housing Communities, Urbanrim.org.uk, Online: http://urbanrim.org.uk/mixed%20tenure.htm, Available: May 2014

 

 

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