Posts tagged ‘communities’

Who needs mortgages anyway?


I'm English, so where's my damn castle?!

I'm English, so where's my damn castle?!

All this brouhaha about getting banks loaning to homebuyers, especially the banks like Northern Rock that have been bailed out by the government… Let’s step back and ask ourselves if owning your own home is really all that it’s cracked up to be. I’m coming to think that it’s not.

I’m not talking about the micro- or macro-economics of this. I’m not an economist and I invite my economist friends to tell me the financial pros and cons of renting all your life. But from a social point of view, from a community point of view, it’s interesting to look at which makes for more resilient, cohesive societies – renting or owning.

Napoleon got it only half-right. A nation of shopkeepers we may be, but we are perhaps first and foremost a nation of homeowners. We’re collectively obsessed with property. But it was not ever thus. Until 1953 only 32% of us owned the houses we lived in. That rose steadily throughout the 2oth Century until it hit a peak of 75% in 1981, the dawn of the Thatcher era. The absolute number has been in gradual decline for the last few years.

I’m too young to remember it of course 🙂 but the Right To Buy was a large plank of the Thatcher project. Asides the financial benefits of owning a long-term investment like a house there were supposed to be all sorts of social benefits, everything from more stable family lives, to greater educational attainment, to more civic pride in our neighbourhoods.

But does owning your own home really make you a better citizen? Perhaps unsurprisingly the American interest group Homeownership Alliance reckons that the evidence is overwhelming. Homeowners in the US, they say, are more likely to vote or be active in civil society and to be more satisfied with their lives overall than non-owners, even after controlling for socioeconomic status.

But hold on. If home ownership is all its cracked up to be, and we’re most of us home owners, then why are we so worried about declining social capital in the UK during precisely this golden era of mortgage lending? And are we really saying that countries with much lower ownership rates such as France (54%), Germany (43%) and Denmark (53%) are blighted with communities in terminal decline by comparison?

When you sit down and think about it, it’s unrealistic that all of us can own our own homes, and it becomes even more unrealistic as this world of ours becomes more crowded and polluted. Nor do simple correllations between home ownership and desirable social traits mean that owning a house makes us all great neighbours – when it comes to policy, you’ve always got to ask “so what?”.  What are the processes behind that data? Maybe family stability, high educational attainment and so on are conducive to home ownership, regardless of background, rather than the other way round?

Housing Associations and housing cooperatives have been proved to be great banks of social capital and economic development in our communities. The Darnhill Estate in Manchester is one example of this. When this estate was transferred to the Guinness Trust in 1999 it had to find a way of engaging  local people in managing and regenerating the area. The residents had “consultation fatigue” – they’d all been interviewed bazillions of times by the council, the trust or a third party.

In the end, local people were recruited to carry out the social audit in a method piloted in Africa in which they were involved in creating the research tools. The legacy of this was considerable; many gained NVQs through this, some stood for elected positions and marginalised people formed connections with others on the estate. Other forms of ownership are not necessarily inferior to owner-occupation. In fact, they can provide platforms for communities to think about themselves and their futures.

I lived in huge Scottish tenements for years and I found it impossible to get away from my neighbours. Our shared close provided us with endless little shared projects (all of them involving junkies in the bike shed and broken front doors). I don’t think that had anything to do with whether we owned our own homes, but came from a variety of factors including the design of the close and a culture of living on top of one another.

Being an engaged, active citizen is about so much more than owning your own bricks and mortar and many of the things its supposed to provide – stability, civic engagement and so-on – are about how we live together. From a social point of view at least, maybe it’s time we moved on from this collective obsession with home ownership.


February 23, 2009 at 3:25 pm Leave a comment

Man Hands On Happiness To Man…

They **** you up, your Mum and Dad... And your neighbours, and your colleagues, and...

They **** you up, your Mum and Dad... And your neighbours, and your colleagues, and...

… As the poet nearly said. What he actually said was “misery”, of course, but Monday’s Children’s Society report, ‘A Good Childhood’ , while full of misery, was also a reminder that how we interact and why we do it has the power to transform our lives – for good or bad.

It’s a mixed bag of a publication, one that has alarmed both Guardianistas  and the Torygraph  as it doesn’t really explain how we should square some of modern life’s most difficult circles.

But what caught my eye was the role it gives to whole communities in nurturing children. Actually, there’s a cunning little paragraph which rather neatly sums up the importance of communities to the social wellbeing of us all. ‘We experience others not just in the family, the school and the workplace but in the whole network of social institutions to which we belong… These are institutions that support us in the values we hold, and through which we can express our generous and positive impulses’.

Exploring how we can express these generous impulses through our networks is what we in the Connected Communities team are all about. With that in mind, Steve passed me this fascinating BMJ article about how we pass our moods onto others through our social networks. I’ve been rereading the slightly jeremiad Childrens Society report through new eyes as a result.

The idea that the mood of the person next to you can affect your mood is not new to social research, and is probably restating the bleeding obvious. Networks’ ability to spread certain things – information, for example – in incredibly sticky and viral ways is also well noted. What this new research suggests is that social networks are also vehicles for “emotional viruses”.

This is quite radical stuff. Emotional wellbeing is often seen as a product of our personal experiences, our genes, just about anything apart from the values and beliefs of the people around us in daily life. What these researchers are saying is that happiness is an emotional virus that can spread in persistent and lateral ways, and it’s friends and neighbours and the way they interact with us that count the most. You get clusters of happy or unhappy people.

The social science geek in me wants to know what ratio of “infected” people to “normal” people you need to start “infecting” a population with misery or happiness, and if it matters where they are in the network. But my less pointy-headed side is wondering what I can actually do with this information, especially to improve our kids’ lives. I’m a school governor; how could I work with other school governors to foster a sense of emotional security and optimism through the values my school embodies? How could each of us spread the happiness virus?

February 5, 2009 at 3:08 pm Leave a comment