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Map of the Week - Community Life

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Mark Easton | 12:16 UK time, Monday, 1 December 2008

Are we watching Britain's communities dying?

An extraordinary and troubling story is told by comparing the maps below.

My Map of the Week is taken from new BBC-commissioned research (click here for report [1.6Mb pdf]) by academics at the University of Sheffield. They interrogated census data from 1971 to 2001 to see how our community make-up has altered.

In particular, the study focuses on the concept of "anomie", a measure of people's sense of - or lack of - belonging to where they live.

anomie maps
Click here for more detailed maps

What the maps reveal is, effectively, the fading away of traditional community life in every part of the UK. (Although Northern Ireland data for 1971 are unavailable, later census data show the same trend.)

Now, it could be argued that the shift simply reflects changing lifestyles, but social isolation and loneliness are implicit in the data, according to the Sheffield academics. My reading is that communities are less well-rooted than they were. And without a strong foundation of people and families who are committed to their neighbourhood, community life suffers.

Rising anomie is highly suggestive of a fall in "social capital", the glue which holds communities together. The result tends to be a decline in trust and an increase in fear.

It is worth explaining how social scientists calculate anomie. It is based on four measures of the population:
  • numbers of non-married adults multiplied by a weight of 0.18;
  • number of 1-person households multiplied by a weight of 0.50;
  • number of people who have moved in their current address within the last year multiplied by 0.38;
  • number of people renting privately multiplied by 0.80.

In a way, it is looking at what we might call Bedsit Britain - the drifting population in which no-one hangs their hat for long.

Numbers in this group have been pushed up by different factors: the increase in students with the expansion of higher and further education; the rise in itinerant labour, often migrants; greater numbers of people who have experienced relationship breakdown and fewer marriages.

But there are have also been social pressures on communities: the collapse of some of the traditional industries around which some of them were based; the increase in second homes, particularly in rural areas and the decline in the extended family with generations tending to drift apart.

anomie change maps

When one looks at the data in terms of change, the map reveals four areas of the UK which have seen the greatest rise in anomie.

In London, the trend is likely to have been affected by large scale immigration. In the east of Scotland, I suspect the expansion in further and higher education will have been a significant factor.

Nottinghamshire surprises me but it may be that the collapse of the coal industry has meant that traditional colliery communities have taken a hit. Recent immigration to the East Midlands will have played a part. The south west of England has long argued that the increase in holiday homes is having a detrimental impact on communities already struggling in one of the most deprived regions of the UK.

I would be interested in your thoughts on all of this, particularly in whether you think it matters.

It could be argued that mobility is a strength in a society - that communities need to renew themselves. Perhaps the internet makes geographical location less important for social capital. You can have a look at the detailed figures in the spreadsheets below and find out what the data suggest has happened in your area:
  • Data Summary Sheet [MS Excel spreadsheet, 167Kb]
  • Lower Geographies [MS Excel spreadsheet, 2.9Mb]

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