Who Is My Neighbour?

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s new report on sustainable urban neighbourhoods was launched at the end of last month at the RICS HQ, facing the Houses of Parliament. Stage and hall were packed, but wasn’t it just preaching to the converted? asks Jan-Carlos Kucharek.

Well, after two years of field research into twelve new brownfield communities, the authors of the new ‘Sustainable Urban Neighbourhoods’ (SUNN) report, Dr Nicholas Falk and Dr Michael Carley seemed happy with the findings, as did the respondees including Peter Vernon of Grosvenor, Kate Henderson of the TCPA and Terrie Alafat of the CLG. But what exactly have we learned? That people like healthy, strong communities near jobs and services. That they should have local shops and well maintained public spaces; that there should be civic leadership to ensure design standards and good facilities management for developments. All well and good, but to the audience of local council representatives, housing associations and housing think tanks, the findings might have seemed very much like teaching your grandmother how to suck eggs.

Notable by their absence were major developers and volume house builders; for whom, in straightened times, such material concerns could be seen as seriously cutting in to their bottom line. Lest we forget, the volume house builders were already grumbling about the RIBA’s ‘Case for Space’ report last year- one imagines this reads as very much part of the same hymn book- and one they’re not inclined to sing along to especially when the collection plate’s being passed around. Yet if a sustainable housing future is to be achieved, it is precisely these guys that we need to be packing the pews.

Most telling was the Q&A. One local council representative was keen to ask Terrie Alafat, CLG’s Director of Housing Growth and Affordable Housing that, with no funding to direct at it, and a draft NPPG that seems to be biased towards the curing economic rather than social woes, how on earth councils would be expected to implement any of the report’s recommendations? Alafat’s response that the ‘Red Tape Challenge’ would cut overall bureaucracy and create savings that can be targeted at the Housing Strategy seemed to fall short as a response. And the TCPA’s Kate Henderson’s lauding of Localism carried a sting in its tail when she re-emphasised that with the NPPG ’ There must be a Local Plan. If there are no sites, or the Plan’s unsound, there’ll be a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’.’ Smacks of actually using the carrot to beat the donkey with, but time will tell.

Most telling though, was the question from C2O Futureplanners’ Stephen Hill, who’s been working in public and private sector housing since the 1970s. He told Alafat that he’s actively been trying to engage institutional investors to finance projects but that his difficulty is that the government’s Housing Strategy ’ has no overarching political narrative’ and is therefore very difficult to explain to potential investors. If anything, he thinks Localism has been a red herring, diverting attention from the bigger view, asking her ‘What hope is there for a political lead on this without a clear national vision?’

I came away with a bigger question still- before a ‘neighbourhood’; what exactly is a ‘neighbour’? In an atomised world where everything outside the threshold of the home is expected to be facilities managed by someone else, where do the responsibilities of the members of the ‘community’ lay? Am I going sweep from my front garden all the way to the kerbside? Will I approach the youth graffitiing my bus stop? A clear definition of what we really want from a community, combined with how far we are prepared to go as individuals to attain it, will help in clarifying the current grey area of our future ‘green’ neighbourhoods.

The report is available to read online at www.jrf.org.uk/publications/sustainable-urban-neighbourhoods