Gentrification and Criminal Faultlines

The debate around the riots has been ebbing and eddying around this week (and the comments on this blog have been tremendous – thank you all) and one topic that was covered on the Today programme (somewhat bizarrely with Wayne Hemmingway) was the extent to which gentrification (simplistically portrayed as the rich moving into poor areas) was a contributing factor.

This is really high up my personal agenda because much of what igloo does creates similar potential issues.

I am developing a habit of living in some of the neighbourhoods in which we are investing on behalf of our various funds. This brings me face to face with some of the issues. We aren’t going to remove criminality through successful regeneration but I think we can do much more to create the kind of resilient neighbourhoods that are capable of reducing crime and the causes of crime.

One of the things we do is set up community funds in our projects. The newly arrived occupiers and the landlord contribute small amounts each quarter and the money raised is targeted to do the most good for the greatest number of people in the local area. The decisions on who gets the money are made by a group that combines the local community with the new arrivals, both businesses and residents.

The first concrete benefit of this is that the people governing the fund get to know each other which allows their respective networks to connect more quickly. We encourage this network creation in other ways like our Footprint Action Groups where the occupiers work together (through the mechanism of our Green Lease) to improve the sustainability of the neighbourhood, through encouraging involvement in neighbourhood planning, through the social media networks we set up and through our encouragement of local groups like running and gardening clubs.

There have been some concrete examples of this this summer including a brilliant charabanc trip from Bermondsey Square to Southend with a group of local residents on an aging London Routemaster bus. One benefit of this was another load of connections between people that are already being rewarded by more hellos in the street.

A reflection on this is the huge benefit that a stable local population brings to a neighbourhood. In the debate around social housing for example we need to find a way to put a value on the relationships people have within a community so that we can factor this into the accountants’ understanding of tenure. Unsurprisingly for an inner London neighbourhood, the newly arrived occupiers on the bus were an international bunch but the contrast between the lack of community and family ties they had in the neighbourhood compared with the rest of the passengers on the bus was stark.

Another example is a grant theBermondsey Squarecommunity fund gave to a group of young actors to put on a performance of Midsummer Nights Dream  in the Square and on the first floor terrace of the Bermondsey Square Hotel. As part of the grant the actors did a workshop for local kids and some of the tickets for each performance were made available to local people who might otherwise not have bought them.

Again this meant that each performance added something to the stock of local relationships as the audience sat around tables in a cabaret style layout and inevitably got chatting. It helped that the performance was brilliant, hilarious and amazingly accessible for those less versed in iambic pentameters (in which I definitely include myself).

We didn’t suffer from looting or rioting in the neighbourhood around Bermondsey Square but that is just as likely to be chance as anything else. However I’m afraid I fundamentally disagreed with the police tactics (which were London wide) of trying to close down the neighbourhood and get all the law abiding people off the streets. Healthy neighbourhoods are policed primarily by their citizens not their (very few and inevitably not local) uniformed police and therefore each should be policed according to its needs. The citizens need to be able to call in the uniforms quickly in the event of trouble but trouble is much less likely when the people on the streets know the potential perpetrators.

In adjoining neighbourhoods where I witnessed trouble it felt much more like a battle between the forces of aggression and disrespect on both sides, kids and police (who, to garble a metaphor, were taking no prisoners).

Many of the neighbourhoods we operate in have wealth and poverty side by side. Whether a faultline or frontline exists is a matter of choice. This situation doesn’t inevitably lead to crime particularly if there are strong community relationships and a feeling that there is equality of opportunity rather than discrimination and disrespect. But this doesn’t appear on its own. It has to be worked for. And the people who need to put in the most effort are the incomers (both residents and businesses). If they put down roots by expending energy in getting to know their neighbours and in helping improve the neighbourhood they will be rewarded with a happier life.

This happens relatively easily with owner occupiers (and owner managed businesses) but I have first hand experience of the reluctance of short term renters (and multiple chain businesses) to get involved or even to start saying hello to their neighbours. The really hard to reach groups are the wealthy young ones in buy to let flats (or the business with its head office elsewhere) even compared with people who do not have English as their first language.

If we as developers and investors can help the process of creating community we will generate better and more sustainable returns. None of this costs very much but none of it is in the valuer’s valuation manual either. But most long term investors would see the value if only in being good corporate citizens. Some have got to the stage where they have started to sell ‘community’. The people who are now buying in our inner urban areas have spent a long time renting and have learned about the nightmares that tend to appear in apartment buildings sold to multiple absentee buy to let investors. This market is also tired, to the point of actively avoiding, the cloned chain operations and they tend to seek out neighbourhoods with personality and character.

We now see the market, and valuers, reducing the values of buildings with high proportions of buy to lets and the more far sighted developers refusing to sell to buy to let investors. The value of streets now full of independent businesses like Marylebone High Street and Lambs Conduit Street has also risen as sterile shopping mall values have declined.

Community and neighbourhood character have value, we just don’t measure it very well.

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