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13 November 2014

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You are in: London > TV > Television > TV Features > Your community needs you!

Boarded up house

Boarded up house on A406

Your community needs you!

A new Government White Paper claims to have as its key objective, greater community control over changes in your community. Kurt Barling asks can urban communities really get what they want? And are local authorities really prepared to listen?

“Communities in control: real people, real power” is the title of a White Paper which is now ripe for debate.  It could affect the lives of every Londoner.

The White Paper is a masterpiece of optimistic government prose.  It critiques the core principles of local government power. 

It identifies who has power; on whose behalf that power is exercised and how those who hold power are held to account.  It also looks at how the power over local decisions can be accessed by everyone in local communities. These are naturally big questions with no easy answers.  

Kurt Barling

BBC London's Kurt Barling

One example of government ineptitude at the local, London and national level shows just how much things need to change in order for the spirit of this proposed legislation to evolve into good practice.

I’m thinking of the regeneration of a corridor of land alongside the North Circular Road in North London.

Over 40 years ago it was decided that the A406 (the North Circular Road) between Bounds Green and Palmers Green needed widening.   The then Ministry of Transport compulsory purchased over 350 properties along the stretch of road to be upgraded.

deteriorate


That was an enormous amount of public investment which should have delivered a decent return.  But the road was never upgraded at this location.

Curiously huge sections of the road have been overhauled along its length but not here, where agreement about what should be done clearly broke down.

Delapidated house on A406

Delapidated house on A406

Instead the local area along the road was allowed to deteriorate.   The properties purchased by the State were sub-let to a wide range of often transient tenants.  Those left behind despaired as they began to live in increasingly slum-like conditions.

Fly-tippers used the boarded up houses as a cue to dump rubbish which attracted vermin.  Some of the houses have more recently have become used as brothels and homes for migrant workers living in squalid conditions.

Ironically this was (and in parts remains) a highly sought after residential area of suburban North London.   Local residents and tenants felt overwhelmed and ignored by those who had allowed the locality around the A406 to fall into such a terrible state.

'slum'

For once it was no exaggeration to say the local, London and central governments all conspired in their failure to cooperate and in so doing created and maintained a slum.  

The road itself has a poor record as the most polluted stretch in the Capital and remains an accident black spot.   Many of the houses are reminiscent of some of the worst urban decay in the north of England where whole communities have fled.  Houses with no roofs, gardens overflowing with rubbish, the odd cared-for-property struggling to banish a sense of complete abandonment.

Road sign for A406

Road sign for A406

There is every reason to suppose that this state of affairs would have continued for a long time to come were it not for the Olympic Games coming to town.   The bulk of the sport fest may be happening in the east of London in four years' time but the organisers have promised to ensure the links with Wembley will be fast and secure along a dedicated Olympic highway.   The A406 was a major impediment to that. 

Last month Transport for London announced that the several decades long awaited upgrade would finally be happening. This was naturally sold as a triumph of common sense.  No-one really mentioned the Olympics.  But the reality is, this stretch of road has to be finished by 2012 or else we’re going to end up looking like a bunch of monkeys in the eyes of the world.

cynicism

The news of the road works was less heralded in the local community.   The deep levels of cynicism after decades of delay are easily explained.  Many local people are pretty sure there will be no Olympic legacy in Bounds Green.

In fact, there is already local talk of how the Olympic authorities might screen off the unsightly mess with fancy logos or advertising to save embarrassment. 

There is another way of looking at this though.  The Government may have presented residents with a window of opportunity with the proposed “Communities in Control” legislation.   It has as its central purpose putting communities in control in precisely these types of circumstance; communities with a hand in their own deliverance.

The local authority, the London Borough of Enfield, has drafted an Area Action Plan which has been the topic of much discussion and some derision locally.   But now the road plans have been approved it removes a serious hurdle that had stood in the way of regeneration. 

Add to that the recent cordial relations between the newly elected Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson and the local Conservative leadership and you can start to see a changing political dynamic which may help the local community get what they want.

The Mayor of London also has new powers over housing.  Under the direction of his “Good Offices” £6 billion pounds worth of central government money has been targeted to upgrade housing provision in the capital.

lobbying

Part of that pot of money has been identified to deal with empty homes.    Enfield Council has confirmed they put in a bid for some £40 million pounds in July to help in plans to refurbish the housing along the A406.   A decision on that should be made next month.

"Some of the houses have more recently have become used as brothels and homes for migrant workers living in squalid conditions"

Kurt Barling

The local residents have an action group which has lobbied hard to get the much needed regeneration.  Now that there is real change on the horizon they will have to become organised and vocal in helping shape the place where they live.

Up until now many local people simply don’t believe they have been adequately consulted in deciding what the future of their locality should be.   Now may be the best opportunity in a generation to have that say.

In fact the “Communities in control” White Paper published by the Government in July builds on the concept of “place shaping”.    This idea was championed by Sir Michael Lyons in his 2007 report on the need for reforms in the way local government delivers for local people.   

Suddenly the A406 upgrade begins to look like an extremely important benchmark for how government in London can improve the lives of Londoners.  There’s much promise as this constellation of positives seems to have aligned in favour of pushing forward a radical overall of this long government-neglected corridor of shame in North London.

The government has pledged, “Real people, real power”.   The proof of the pudding is always in the eating.   You have to ask:  if getting people involved and helping to shape their locality should fail to happen here, how on earth could it work anywhere?

last updated: 20/10/2008 at 12:02
created: 20/10/2008

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