What’s a “gated community”? According to Tony Judt in Ill Fares The Land (well worth a read by the way) ‘the term denotes people who have gathered together into affluent subdivisions of suburbs and cities and fondly suppose themselves functionally independent of the rest of society’. They are a shameless acknowledgement of the desire to separate oneself from other members of society but significantly increasing in number in today's Britain.
Whatever happened to community and society? Why are people in Stratford – traditionally Labour heartland – agreeing with Thatcher, the biggest privatiser of all, that ‘there is no such thing as society’ – asserting that the state can’t even be trusted to look after its own people and choosing to live the same way as the ‘Iron Lady’ herself?
Judt writes: ‘These gated communities reserve the right to impose a range of restrictions and regulations according to taste: no skateboarding, no rollerblading, no eating in certain locations, no begging, no vagrancy, no photographs and of course a myriad of private security and closed circuit cameras to enforce them all’.
Reading about these made me wince. Their rise suggests that in a way, Thatcherism has won. It didn’t entirely kill society but hurt it enough to lead some people to want to adhere to her individualism and separate themselves from the general public. I’m all for devolving powers at times (e.g. Devolution to Scotland/Wales/NI), but devolving them to well-off members of society who can afford to live in a gated community and shut off less wealthy neighbours is not right.
Think about it. If everyone middle class shut themselves off from the working-classes, taking their wealth and affluence with them into their gated communities, not only will you see anything but vibrant and diverse communities on both sides of the gates, you might soon see ghettos and extreme poverty. Society needs a certain amount of diversity. You need rich and poor living alongside each other for the state to function, for public services to run, for divisions not to occur and for crime not to rise as a result. John Prescott was right to accuse them of promoting social exclusion.
As Bill Hillier of UCL puts it: "The gate turns people inward and may make them more afraid of the world outside the gate". One of the excuses given for creating gated communities is that they reduce crime. That’s a myth. American statistics show they don’t even cut burglaries. They just lead to ‘tailgating’ (drivers coming into ‘secure’ enclaves following cars whose in-car technology has opened the gates). "Once in, burglars are freer to rob than on the street", the Telegraph’s Sarah Lonsdale reports, whose opposition (as a Tory paper) shows how wide-ranging opponents to the Thatcherite idea are. Anyway, the private security firms gated communities hire are not entitled by law to act in the name of the state and must thus call upon the police to assist them in the event of serious crime.
If I were David Cameron (not that he’s probably particularly eager to move away from such a Thatcherite concept) I’d outlaw their construction just like I’d want Israel outlawed from building settlements on the West Bank. It’s probably not that simple for the government. Labour’s opposition to them while in government was challenged by the European Committee for Standardisation, among the biggest proponents of gated communities, and I’m unclear of how much governments can actually do.
Funnily enough, if you Google them, you find very little about gated communities. Hardly a surprise: the people who live in them don’t want others to know about what they probably see as their safe havens. Depressingly, where you do find them is on estate agent or holiday rental websites. You look at a house’s main features: ‘Gas fireplace’, maybe, ‘fully equipped kitchen’ perhaps; then ‘gated community’. It’s among the top things some properties are advertised as having/being in. I bet lots of people think: ‘privacy, security, peace and quiet... sounds good’, give into the culture of fear they create, not helped by the sensationalist tabloid press, and go for them. I fear not everyone will spot their many flaws and worry they’ll catch on.
What can we do? If neighbours try to create one, oppose it. If an estate agent tries to persuade us into moving into one, resist any temptation you might feel. Southwark councillor Catherine Bowman says: "London is a vibrant, animated city - and (we believe that) this is partly because there is such a good social mix". If we let gated communities win, we can forget vibrancy, forget diversity and forget the idea of community itself. They’ll become things of the past.