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Rod Liddle

It’s hard to build a Big Society if you don’t know who lives next door

3 December 2011

3:00 PM

3 December 2011

3:00 PM

Is it important to know your next-door neighbour’s name if you’re about to send him death threats, hate mail or just post unpleasant allegations about him on a social networking site? My guess is that your campaign of vilification will carry more weight if you can actually give the victim’s full name, rather than just saying ‘the ginger-headed nonce with the Lexus at No. 32’. And yet increasingly, it seems, we do not know the names of our next-door neighbours. The latest poll, commissioned by some Japanese car manufacturer for reasons of which I am not entirely clear, suggested that 70 per cent of us do not know our neighbours’ names. This is a huge problem, I would have thought, if you’re going to sue the bastard. The courts are sticklers for stuff like names.

And you may well be about to sue him. Another survey reported that one in three of us have had some form of dispute with a neighbour, usually because the neighbour has exhibited some form of ‘aggressive behaviour’. One in ten people who move do so because they hate their neighbours, although if they are selling a property they are less keen to make this point clear. An estimated 100,000 people have moved house recently as a consequence of neighbourhood disputes.

All of these figures come from various surveys commissioned by commercial organisations which wish to draw attention to themselves. I don’t know what sort of methodology they used in each case: perhaps they just guessed. So let’s assume that the figures are indicative, rather than definitive. We certainly, anecdotally, seem to have a more fractious relationship with our neighbours these days; there is a very popular website called Problemneighbours which will tell you how to take legal action against your neighbour, or inflict an Asbo on him, or bring down the wrath of the environmental health inspectors.

I found that first figure I quoted politically interesting: the overwhelming majority of us do not know the name(s) of our next-door neighbours. This notion of a Big Society, which our Prime Minister kept talking about but never properly defined — perhaps because almost every action of this government subsequently has been to undermine its supposed ethos — surely begins with a friendly, tolerant and supportive relationship with the ginger-headed nonce with the Lexus next door. The sort of relationship we used to have 30 or so years ago with our neighbours. The same survey suggested that 83 per cent of people felt that the relationship with their neighbours was much more remote than the sort of relationship their parents enjoyed with their neighbours when they were the same age. It is hard to foster a sense of community if you do not know who your neighbour is, or only have a vague idea of who your neighbour is and think he’s a prick. So why has this happened?

Part of it, I suspect, is the rapidly decreasing length of time we spend in one place. The shorter our tenure in a dwelling, the more likely we are to view the people living near us as a temporary encumbrance whose behaviour should be regulated by the state or the council or through solicitors. The average length of time spent in one place, if you are an owner-occupier, is now down to 11 years. We are enjoined to move on not only because of this Conservative vision of an endlessly mobile labour force skedaddling across the country in pursuit of short-term contracts, but also as a consequence of an earlier Conservative vision of houses which are collateral, a get-rich-quick scheme in which one buys, waits, and flogs the property, rather than as a home in which one immerses oneself in the community and puts down roots.

It’s a simple thing: if David Cameron wishes us to take more responsibility for our communities, then we should spend longer in our communities. And yet we are spending a shorter and shorter period of time in one place. To give you a non-scientific example: I have moved home 13 times in the last 20 years, whereas my father moved home five times in 70 years (and most of those within the area where he grew up).

However, compared with alternative forms of accommodation, we spend a comparatively decent length of time in one place if we own our own home, just as we do if we are in social housing. But the ludicrously high cost of owning your own home and the almost complete destruction of Britain’s social housing means that these two forms of accommodation are in steep decline. More than ever, we are likely to recourse to private landlords. Within this sector, 36 per cent of people move home within a year. Almost none stays for more than ten years in one place. So when the Japanese car manufacturers do their survey again in ten years time, the number of people who haven’t a clue who their neighbours are is likely to be somewhere around the 90 per cent mark.

It’s not a pleasant thought, is it — a nation of atomised individuals with no stake in their community, who view the people living near them with intolerance bordering on hostility? And unusually for a symptom of social decline, it has been brought about almost exclusively by policies pursued by the political right: high house prices, the legitimisation of venal acquisitiveness, infinite mobility of labour and the selling off of council houses.

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