John Battle MP
PERHAPS it is the demands of the media soundbite that is contracting the language. The word "house" throughout the early 1980s was increasingly restricted to "growing investment asset" practically consuming the term "property asset" in its entirety during the housing market boom. Simultaneously, the word "home" took on the specialist restricted meaning of "elderly persons supported scheme". To live in a home meant to lose all local neighbourhood connections and to move indoors away from the community. The word "neighbours" itself has now been capitalised into the most popular TV programme watched in the privacy of one's own "home", and nothing to do with relationships in the real world.
But some people, resisting the trend, are still getting together locally in neighbourhood watch groups. Encouraged by local police in the face
of escalating crime house burglaries and car theft in particular more and more groups are being officially established with secretaries, street signs, window stickers, alarm systems, advisers, with street contacts, local authority liaison officers, and with a commitment to doing something. It's almost as if the local meeting is being revived in ordinary living rooms.
The clear objective is to make the locality safer, though occasionally, as the group feels it has been increasingly left to get on with it by overstretched police, there is some pressure for more direct action. The night I arrived home in the early hours of the morning to find my own front gate padlocked by my over-enthusiastic next-door neighbour, I began to bridle at interfering busybodies.
More worryingly, as recent angry public meeting arranged by one local neighbourhood watch coalesced around complaints about the lack of a police presence or patrol on the streets and demands to be allowed "to arrange our own patrols".
The thought of armed neighbourhood watch vigilantes along the lines of the euphemistically named "Guardian Angels" (of London Underground fame) suggests that the notion of "watching the neighbours" could get viciously out of control. At that point I blew cool, and once again encouraged the take-up of stickers and street signs.
But a recent constituent's letter made me think again. He wrote to say he'd lived in my area for two years "under Labour" and no-one had even introduced him to his next-door neighbours so much for the Labour City Council. What was I going to do about it, he wanted to know.
I was tempted to write back and tell him that I was sorry that the Council was not able to play "neighbourhood introducers" who could call on everyone and introduce them to the person next door. The Government's set standing spending assessment makes absolutely no provision for this vital ice-breaking work.
I'm increasingly convinced "neighbourhood introducers" would be a good idea. It would certainly end the isolation of many elderly some of whom never get out and never speak to a neighbour from one week's end to another. If we have forgotten how to start up even the most basic conversations, if we've lost the memory of those warm human noises that contribute to building up neighbourhood communities, then
perhaps there is a need for reminders.
At least people are getting together in neighbourhood watch groups, and don't we believe "where two or three are gathered together..." our world can be transformed? Attempts to hold off the excesses of the vigilante approach ought not to undermine at least that rudimentary sharing of an awareness that we can and should take responsibility for each other. In the course of privatising all business, the expression "it's none of my business" is a modern synonym for the words of those who pass by on the other side.
It is not a question of interfering, but getting to know each other better. Perhaps neighbourhood security will come from participation in our neighbourhood watches, not in order to spy on people from behind the curtains with a view to reporting them, but in order to develop the good old-fashioned concept of watching over each other.