Strong communities – Where are they?

Posted on September 29, 2010 in Journalism

It’s easy to check the location and specifications of a house, but how can you assess an area’s community spirit – not just if the neighbours are friendly, but if people will get involved in David Cameron’s Big Society by helping deliver public services, setting up social enterprises, and tackling local issues?

The Times – September 2010

I wanted to find somewhere like this when searching for a house in Oxford recently. So when my prospective neighbour’s 18-year old girl daughter told me she had lived in the house all her life, loved the street, and there was an annual street party (now running for 18 years), I proceeded with my purchase. Here are my tips for finding out an area’s community spirit:

1. Talk to the seller
Talk to the house’s seller, and if an estate agent shows you round, ask for the vendor’s phone number. “Meeting the seller is an opportunity to ask what an area is like,” says Mr Gittins, manager of Streets Alive, which work with residents, councils and voluntary groups to build communities through meaningful events and activities in streets. In his view, if the neighbour says positive things, such as there are regular get-together’s, that’s useful; they are more likely to lie when asked, ‘Do the neighbours make much noise?’

2. Knock on doors
It may sound obvious, but apparently not many people knock on the doors of their future neighbours. If you don’t find anyone at home, or don’t get a clear response, ask people in the neighbourhood, pub or corner shop.

3. Ask Neighbourhood/Home Watch
Living within a well-organised Neighbourhood (or Home) Watch scheme doesn’t just reduce your insurance premiums and ensure the police tackle local issues. Research shows that even where neighbours have nothing in common, they share a desire to create a safe and secure area, and forge a community spirit. The police authority (and sometimes their web sites) can tell you whether there is a scheme in your area, and from November you can find out from the national Neighbourhood and Home Watch web site.

4. Ask local organisations
If there is no Neighbourhood or Home Watch scheme, or if you want another viewpoint, try asking local organisations such as the local police beat team, or the parish or town council – and residents’ and management associations, if you are renting or moving into a flat. Many of the latter publish minutes of their meetings on their web site, which might reveal issues to consider. And if there is no association, you should find out why.

5. Use published data
The CrimeMapper website provides information on crime and anti-social behaviour by area and police force. It’s not perfect – the information doesn’t go down to community level. But you can search by five types of crime, and can get details of your local Neighbourhood Policing team, its priorities and contacts, and the next ‘Have Your Say’ meeting with the police.

6. Be alert to problems
Steer clear of areas with heavy traffic is the advice of Living Streets, which promotes safe, active and enjoyable streets. As their research shows, people living on busy streets shield themselves from noise, don’t go outside, and restrict their children’s independence – all of which reduces interaction among neighbours.

And although an open space may seem like an asset – providing a place for community and leisure activities, and children to play – it can also become sources of conflict, warns Dominic Church, senior advisor at the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. He says: “If they are not kept clear and nobody is clearly responsible for the maintenance, they can become breeding grounds for graffiti, anti-social behaviour and kids mucking about.”

7. Don’t be put off by adversity
Floods, high crime levels and other problems can give a neighbourhood a bad image, but they can also galvanise the local community spirit. In my case, the floods of 2007 brought people together to tackle climate change, which then led to a low carbon group that this year won two national competitions worth over £800,000 in total.

8. Contact the council
County and unitary councils have lists of local community and voluntary organisations that can help reveal the interests and activities of local communities. Some councils also run award schemes, which may include prizes for active and inspirational groups. And in most cases, anywhere holding a street party will have needed permission first from the council.

9. Use the internet
Search the web, use social media, and post queries on forums to find out residents’ views. It may give you more up-to-date information, and cover different people and issues, than that held by councils. “Estate agents talk about specific things, but people want to know about invisible things, like community spirit, do people muck in when it comes to the school run and ‘Can I make a home for my family?’,” says Catherine Hanley, associate editor of

10. Go with your instincts
If you are confident about the house, you could go ahead with the purchase and hold a street party to galvanise community spirit yourself. “People who have just moved into a house are critical to setting up street parties,” says Mr Gittins. “After two or three years it becomes harder – they meet neighbours, get set in their routines, and feel less motivated.”

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© Robert Bullard. Not for reproduction without prior permission

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