Starting from scratch

Nine years ago Cambourne was an empty field in the flat Cambridgeshire countryside. Today, the roads are filled with Mini estates in fashionable colours and mothers cycling to pick up their children from school. Birdsong and the smells of manure still fill the air.

Towns like this are known as ‘exurbs’ by town planners – new developments that are different to suburbs in that they aren’t annexed to existing cities. Estate agents call it ‘countryside light’, well suited to urbanised professionals who commute into bigger cities and are starting their families.

As we drive past the quiet pavements, the well-kempt lawns and the almost film set-like detached houses, Cambourne seems like a very unlikely place to come to find out about the dynamics of civility in British communities. But the experience of Cambourne sheds much light on some common assumptions about social order.

Proximity to an academic centre with a large public sector and an IT industry means that the development attracts significant numbers of mostly professional migrant workers. Many of them are from Asia and Africa. Levels of ethnic diversity are significantly higher than the national average.

Yet, for residents, ethnic diversity and migration figured very low on their lists of concerns. The people we spoke to thoughtfully explained that hostility towards new arrivals doesn’t make sense given that they are all newcomers.

A more problematic undercurrent was the hostility directed towards social housing residents. The original planning agreement for Cambourne stipulated that 30% of the housing provided would be affordable, much of it social. This agreement was aimed at families, many of them with a single parent, who needed space for their children but couldn’t find suitable accommodation in the surrounding towns and cities.

The situation came to a head when local journalists labelled the development ‘Crimebourne’. Even though crime rates were much lower than in surrounding market towns, reports of vandalism and drug abuse regularly made it into the Cambridgeshire papers.

The local Community Development Worker explains how the media portrayal soon translated into an under-current of resentment on the streets. The summer was particularly problematic because council housing residents often used their front lawns to catch the sun, giving the impression that they were just “sitting around” all day. Children from social housing were also finding it difficult to integrate into the local schools. Antagonism, some of it quite virulent, was voiced through the local online platform.

The popular assumption was of course that the disruption which people read about in the local paper was caused by poorer neighbours (even though the authorities suspected that the perpetuators were generally the wealthier, bored teenage residents messing about in parking lots). In the words of one single mother, “they looked down on people like us.”

But whether false or exaggerated, the rumours became a disrupting force. Local residents were loath to see the value of their homes decline. The private developers did not want to spoil the brand which promised a happy, family-friendly lifestyle. Consultants were commissioned to find out what was going on. Their report warned that if the issues were not dealt with Cambourne would remain a stop over town for people making their way up the property ladder.  In the words of the local vicar: “The challenge has always been how to form a completely new community.”

To their credit, rather than resort to CCTV or private security guards to address its negative image, the local authorities decided to redouble investment into community infrastructure.  

Today the town boasts a lending library, a skate park, a youth centre, numerous playgrounds, allotments, a multi-denomination Church, an art group, some public art, parish notice boards, a ‘posh’ cafe and a large community centre. According to the parish clerk, the value of local community assets has grown from a mere £800 a couple of years ago to over £2 million today. He tells us that he has lost count of the number of festivals and groups that get together – everything from baby yoga and aerobics for the elderly to fireworks committees.

So, what are the lessons from this new settlement? The main point is that if left unmanaged, rumours and suspicions can be hugely divisive. The biggest losers from distrust are not the property developers, but local people who become caught up in the stereotypes of each other. As articulated by one of the young, single mother with regards to her relationship with a middle aged, professional mother she’d met at one of the local mum and baby groups, people of all classes have a huge amount to gain from people who are different to themselves. The role of those designing communities is to ensure that they create the spaces for these interactions to take place. Civility will soon follow.

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About Phoebe Griffith

My work is as a writer and policy advisor. My interests are in the dynamics that make our increasingly complex, fast-paced, diverse cities work - from the emergence of new codes of civility in an age of invasive technology to the future of the developing world's mega-cities. I grew up in Lima (Peru) and am now bringing up a family in the heart of West London (UK).
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