Localism Bill: what’s a community?

The Localism Bill gives more power to “local communities”, letting “communities” run their own affairs. There’s a Community Right to Challenge. Communities will keep the proceeds of the Community Infrastructure Levy. Community, community, community. Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities, won’t stop talking about communities.

The problem is that in practice it doesn’t mean “communities”, it seems to mean something closer to “parish”, which is something quite different.

The Bill seems to suggest that the new level of power is arranged along prescriptive ward/parish-style boundaries. But that’s not how communities actually function, and would likely remove power from the majority of people who actually use and care for a place.

Urban neighbourhoods are not self-contained to any degree: what we really have is a series of communities that overlap geographically. They may be based on age, class, religion, colour, or just on a favourite pub. Although people may live next door to each other, their ideas of what constitutes their ‘neighbourhood’ might vary wildly depending on the shops, pubs, and parks they frequent, their usual walking routes, and so on.

So, for example, I view my neighbourhood as extending roughly from Columbia Road to the London Fields Lido. My neighbour might think of their community as being centred around the Shah Poran Masjid, or Hoxton Square, or Haggerston School. Our imagined place in the urban fabric is only marginally decided by where we are physically located.

There’s a meeting next week to set up a ‘Community Council’ for London Fields – the Localism Bill will promote many more such Neighbourhood Forums.

Andrew Boff (a great local Tory Assembly Member, who is helping with the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign) says that a community council in London Fields could give “residents” more influence:

“A community council can set up youth facilities (much under- resourced in London Fields), get local consent for any future road works, address a shortage of child care facilities, or set up a transition town strategy to address climate change.”

The people who use the park probably aren’t residents of the immediate area, but they are still stakeholders in the park. They are the customers of local businesses, and the life of local streets. A neighbourhood purely managed for the local residents wouldn’t necessarily cater for those who live somewhat more geographically dispersed, but are still invested in the place.

The principle of subsidiarity is a good one in theory – that decisions should be taken at the smallest, lowest competent authority. But this looks a bit too atomised, and doesn’t take into account of how people live their lives.

There’s no doubt that the existing Boroughs are too big – why should decisions be taken on a level that covers Bethnal Green, Canary Wharf, Fish Island, and Wapping? I’d suggest that the former Metropolitan Boroughs, established by the 1900 London Government Act, better contain the possibilities of human activity and communities.

So, I suppose, here begins the Shoreditch secessionist movement. More Light! More Power!

Published in: on February 11, 2011 at 3:46 pm  Comments (1)  

The park in the dark

Tower Hamlets’ zealous park wardens locked me inside Victoria Park (again), reminding me that Boris Johnson once said how disgraceful it is that every evening, thousands of acres of London are placed Strictly Off Limits to the public. As the evenings draw in, the amount of London available to us shrinks and shrinks. It is a shameful admission of failure by our society that the authorities refuse to guarantee the safety of citizens in parks after dusk, and rather than confronting this problem just lock us out.

Boris Johnson’s manifesto for public space London’s Great Outdoors says:

“Many of London’s larger public parks are fenced and locked at night. This can create severance as sections of the city are literally decommissioned. It can also turn many surrounding streets into inactive cul-de-sacs. The main reason for locking London’s parks at night is fear of crime and antisocial activities.

“However many parks, such as Highbury Fields and Streatham Common, are not fenced or gated. This suggests that 24-hour access could be made to work in more of our parks and green spaces with the right design and right lighting and management regimes. High quality, creative lighting can increase feelings of safety and encourage ownership and use.

“I want to ensure that access to public space is as unrestricted and unambiguous as possible. The needs of different users and age groups can be accommodated through intelligent design. With proper consideration at the outset of safety issues, the usage of public spaces can be extended well into the evening without the need for unnecessary barriers.”

This is absolutely correct, although I’m not sure much progress Boris has actually made.

It is only right that some green space is fenced off. It would probably be thought unfair to inhabitants of residential squares to encourage people to congregate outside their windows all night long. Where people do congregate at these residential squares, like they did at Percy Circus and Vernon Square near Kings Cross, the authorities are justified in dispersing them.

Highbury Fields isn’t fenced, and is safe to use and cross all night. Although in a distinctly less ritzy part of town, London Fields is also safe at night. It is well-lit, has clear lines of sight right across the park (at least it does until Hackney’s dreadful council goes through with its plans to astroturf, fence off, and plant up a good portion of the middle of the fields), and is therefore used as a route by pedestrians and cyclists 24 hours a day.

As in all cases, the best way to reduce crime and make somewhere safe it to make sure it is used. Victoria Park is getting a restoration in time for Olympics – I hope part of that is restoring the lovely gas lamps along its paths, and keeping it open into the evening. When places are treated by authorities as being unsafe, people use them less which leads to them actually being more unsafe.

Published in: on September 13, 2010 at 8:36 pm  Leave a Comment