A weekend by the sea, part five: Rebuilding neighbourhoods

There is a dirty word in French that looks, to English speakers, totally harmless: the “neighbourhood”. But look at the lyrics of any American rap song and you’ll understand the meaning to French ears: the “‘hood” is something to be feared by those who don’t live there and a badge of pride (even mired in poverty and crime) for those that do.

At the heart of Nicolas Sarkozy’s new approach to crime and public safety in 2002, when he became Interior Minister, was an attitude of confrontation with the evils that existed in the neighbourhoods (particularly the suburbs around major French cities that grew at a head-spinning pace in the 1960s and 70s when France built large concrete blocks at low-cost in a brutalist style to house its new immigrant workers). These neighbourhoods have become leitmotifs for everything that has gone wrong in society: racism, crime, drugs, disappearance of public services and social exclusion.  Given that countless governments since the 1970s have sought to tackle these problems to no avail, can the first Socialist government in 10 years do any better?

At the recent summer party conference in La Rochelle, local mayors and councillors from the neighbourhoods were present in force, and they are keen to ensure that central government supports their efforts to improve their own streets.  Whilst there are as many origins of the problem as there are struggling neighbourhoods, most present agreed that for once the issue was not a lack of money, but how it is spent.

The challenge of rebuilding the neighbourhoods centres on creating a link between the individuals living in an area so there forms a community.  The failure of communities to grow organically results from the absence of one or more key factors : schools, universities, jobs, entertainment or culture…  If the options available are beyond the pale or simply too far away for inhabitants to use them, the community breaks down or fails to form an identity itself – the suburb becomes a nowhere place, where people are trapped rather than living.  Not everyone in the community will have the same view of course: if you have a car or work in a local business like a shop or town hall, you can survive, but you do so in a pervading atmosphere of depression which can quickly turn to aggression.

Forming successful communities is therefore a complex and multifaceted thing.  Most politicians seem to agree that the reason why the Hope for the Suburbs Plan of Nicolas Sarkozy failed to make the hoped for impact, despite significant political capital being spent, was that it failed to provide a joined up approach and only focussed on certain economic factors.  It was also not funded to the full extent and not followed through, largely in part due to the political ostracization of the Minister for Cities at the time, the left-wing import, Fadela Amara.

The new Minister for Cities, François Lamy, is a thoughtful, perhaps even slightly shy, figure, who dislikes big announcements by instinct.  There will therefore be no big Suburban Plan with this administration, to the relief of Socialist local councils.  Instead, he intends to look at the nuts and bolts of how each community functions, or doesn’t function.  Sometimes it is as simple as adjusting the times of buses or creating a new transport link to enable people to get to and from school or work.  Sometimes it is because the local area is outside the catchment area for a local police station.  Whilst councils should deal with these issues where they fall within their remit, centrally funded and directed public services need the state’s input.  But this idea of partnership between local and central government (that Lamy genuinely believes in) is a radical new approach – no longer will it be assumed that if an area has gone to pot, it is because the council was incompetent in preventing the decline.

Another strand of revitalising the neighbourhoods is to strengthen the network of local associations.  Sadly, government (both central and local) funding of services provided by associations, like drop-in centres for new mothers or job advisory services, has been scaled back, at the moment when it is needed most as unemployment and social exclusion climbs.  Hopefully a new minister in charge of associations and their development, Benoit Hamon, will be able to make some noise in favour of supporting these groups.

Social mixing is perhaps the most complex challenge.  Whilst the city of Paris is itself extremely cosmopolitan, the suburbs are often startlingly monochrome.  Self-segregation is not a uniquely French phenomenon, and it has not taken the disturbing path it has in the US with gated communities shutting out the outside world (the sad tale of the death of Trayvon Martin seems to epitomise the worst consequences of the gated-mentality) .  But it has been a change that has transformed conurbations across France in merely 20 years.  This has in part led to a particular attitude about helping the people who live in the neighbourhoods – an attitude known as “places, not people” – in effect, a policy is directed towards a particular area and not a particular group or category of people in need.  This attitude in turn reinforces the differences between different places, and therefore the segregation.

This fits with the tradition within the decentralised state which delegates down to mayors and heads of district councils the responsibility for dealing with social strife. But it also exacerbates territorial inequality (it is no coincidence that there is now a minister for that very subject in government).  This approach continues, sadly, with the new public safety priority zones announced by the government last month to respond to the recent disturbances in Amiens.  It is however possible, but perhaps more expensive and more time-consuming, to deal with people, rather than places.  Rehousing programmes, where large neighbourhoods have been bulldozed have traditionally looked at the individual needs of those being rehoused, rather than simply transplant the population en masse into a new area.  People were housed, often highly successfully, far and wide.  So perhaps the Minister for Cities should become the Minister for City-dwellers?

François Lamy explained that his initial desire was to begin to change the dreadful public image of neighbourhoods, split between fear of the crime that is perceived as rife, and the anger over money spent disproportionately on the troublesome areas (in fact, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that more money is lavished on expensive town centres and rural areas).  Still, it is easy for the right, and in particular the far right, to claim a new left-wing government is splurging on communities of Islamic-fundamentalist-polygamist-drug-dealing-joyriders.

Urban renovation has worked well where the local elected officials were the driving force behind the project, in order to adapt the project to fit the people it was designed to serve.  Lamy wants to generalise that approach and has begun an audit of programmes to spread best practice.  Secondly, he stressed the need for coordinated action by government.  Having a minister for cities had caused other ministries to get out of the suburbs and leave the issue to a ministry that lacked the ability to tackle problems covering the full social spectrum, not just housing and parkland, but schools and hospitals too.  Lamy would change this, ensuring that, for example, if school hours in an area could be varied to deal with a local transport issue, the Eduction Ministry would be involved in the process.

Fundamentally, Lamy said, mixing different social categories and classes seems to work, creating (perhaps counter-intutively) cohesive communities. Forcing people to mix however doesn’t, it needs to develop itself and result from choice.  Jean-Louis Borloo, a former Minister for Cities, has suggested that a widespread programme of selling off older council houses would lead to greater mixing, as well as raise cash for further building.  It is unlikely the Socialists could take such a step, toxic as it is with the far left, but some greater mobility might be instilled by shifting council housing priorities.

Fundamentally, what is needed for the neighbourhoods, what is need for everyone, is economic prosperity, which should lift every part of the country.  But prosperity should also flow from the redevelopment of the neighbourhoods, and that is something that big announcements alone will not to.  And for the first time in five years, the minister in charge knows that.

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One thought on “A weekend by the sea, part five: Rebuilding neighbourhoods

  1. Pingback: Newish Brooms | Your Critical Friend

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