Neighbourhood ‘care’ headed to graveyard of good intention

It’s naive to assume neighbourhoods mean communities. RobertHuffstutter

Neighbourhood watch groups should apply for care status and provide help for older people to counter Britain’s “uncivilised” attitude to pensioners.

As well as looking out for potential burglars and keeping an eye out for neighbours gardens, watchers could also offer help to elderly neighbours, including washing and feeding.

Although attractive in principle, the evidence suggests it would be unwise to equate the concept of neighbourhood with assumptions about its capacity to create a rich social capital.

What makes good neighbours?

In a report with Melanie Henwood, we reviewed the sociological evidence of “neighbourliness”.

We found several things that shape our experience of neighbourhoods, including proximity - whether you live next door or in the next street - and how quickly you can pop round or help in an emergency, although the ability to help in an ongoing way is declining and more limited than it used to be.

How long you’ve lived somewhere and whether you’re considered a “newcomer” also shapes our experience as well as social polarisation - reciprocal neighbourhood care grows where information and trust are high, and where there are limited resources for satisfying needs in other ways - classic features of deprived and socially homogeneous neighbourhoods.

Communities and associations

In the 19th century, the sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies argued that in rural gemeinschaft (or community) groups, social order was based on a web of social ties - people knew each other in a range of multiple roles, such as parents, neighbours, co-workers, friends or kin.

But urban neighbourhoods were organised more like gesellchaft (or associations) with single-stranded ties - only knowing each other in single, specialised roles such as “the person next door” or the binman.

These structures have only intensified. Better transport, longer journeys to work, a wider geographical spread of friends and kin, a wider range of shopping and recreational opportunities, and more insular families, have all reduced the idea of neighbourhood as the central point of social interaction and social support.

The prospect of relying on those in the neighbourhood to help vulnerable neighbours with washing and feeding, let alone companionship (and especially in urban areas), looks remote.

Big Society and other attempts

The last Labour government invested quite heavily in a range of neighbourhood-focused initiatives but with little to show for the effort.

Evaluations of two initiatives they launched, the Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy and the New Deal for Communities programme, which both aimed to utilise community spirit to improve deprived neighbourhoods found little evidence of improved conditions or growth in social capital.

The idea of another programme was to employ a neighbourhood manager, supported by a small team, to drive local improvement and create community cohesion. Again, the results were less than fulsome.

More recently, there’s been the Big Society, the flagship Tory election policy to empower communities and take a more active role in looking after each other and providing local services. But despite the rhetoric, little has been heard of much trumpeted initiatives that fall under its umbrella, such as the National Citizen Service or the 5000-strong Community Organisers programme to “galvanise those around them to become more active”.

The Big Society concept itself has become something of a byword for failed politics.

Lamb’s idea

Where does this leave Lamb’s proposal? There is no doubt that he is on to something interesting with his focus on neighbourhoods. But it’s fanciful to think there is a huge store of social capital out there just waiting to be cultivated.

Neighbourhood policy and practice already crosses all sectors – informal, independent, statutory, voluntary and community. It also straddles many organisational and professional boundaries.

An area with around 10,000 people living in it, for example, is likely to contain primary health care services, community health services, adult and children’s social care and support, early years and primary school provision, neighbourhood policing, a community pharmacy, neighbourhood wardens of some sort, a number of voluntary and community groups, housing offices, commercial and leisure facilities, and some measure of social capital.

All of these contributions are important but they rarely act together. Now there’s a serious policy challenge with a huge potential pay-off.

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