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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 March, 2004, 08:48 GMT
Gates and ghettoes: A tale of two Britains?
By Anita Rice
BBC Current Affairs Interactive

Do gated communities help, or hinder, local safety and social cohesion? The UK home secretary has called for a debate on how they improve security, while the deputy commissioner of the Met is wholly opposed to them.

Security guard patrols Bow Quarter
Security guards patrol around the clock at Bow Quarter
"I know more people living here than I would do in a normal street," says 45-year-old Terry Nicholls, resident of Bow Quarter, a gated community in East London.

And Bow Quarter does not feel like a normal street at all.

Like most gated communities, the complex of around 700 apartments is walled off from the surrounding area, employs security guards round the clock and is peppered by dozens of infra-red surveillance cameras.

Once you've been signed in and got past the gates and the security guards, you're in a totally different world to the streets you've just left behind.

Bow Quarter is peaceful, quiet, litter and graffiti-free and, of course, feels totally safe. It stands in stark contrast to the noise, bustle and social mix found on the Bow Road at the end of the street.

Behind the gates, the complex has its own gym (complete with swimming pool, whirlpool bath and sauna), supermarket, bar, restaurant, postal box and decked communal areas.

And therein lies the rub.

Separate lives

As Mr Nicholls acknowledges, the residents don't need to mix with the locals outside the gates: "It can make you very insular... we don't need to leave the building at all."

Gated communities
Walled or fenced housing developments to which public access is restricted, often guarded using CCTV and/or security personnel.
Often have legal agreements in place which tie residents to a common code of conduct.
There are 1000 in England alone today.
And, as he says, he may know more people than he would on an average inner-city street but he's mixing with people inside the complex, not other locals.

So while gated communities may entice some middle and upper income groups into inner cities who may have refused to live there because of fear of crime, they may not actually promote social cohesion and respect for law and order.

Rather, there are fears that gating merely serves to highlight inequality in highly polarised areas like London.

A report on gated communities by Sheffield Hallam and Glasgow University for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister quotes figures indicating stark differences between the two populations inside and outside the gates and suggesting that the two rarely come into contact.
Terry Nicholls
Terry Nicholls says living in a gated community can make you "insular".

For example, it states 73% of adults inside the gates are economically active as opposed to 57% outside. The majority of adults within the gates are in social classes 1 and 2, whereas the residents outside are overwhelmingly from classes 3 and 4.

The report also found that 48% of residents inside the gates are owner-occupiers, compared to only 3% outside.

Open society?

However, earlier this year Home Secretary David Blunkett called for the possible expansion of gated communities, beyond just wealthier people, as a means of improving security and social cohesion.

He said: "As part of the 'big conversation' that the Labour Party has engaged in, we want to hear how we can make available to the many what is currently only available to the few.

"Take the example of gated and secure communities. Not just in London but primarily in London, there are communities of the wealthy ...where people contribute towards the security and order within the enclave in which they live."

But Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair, disagrees with the home secretary entirely.

Bow Quarter resident in whirlpool bath
Bow Quarter has its own leisure, shopping and postal facilities
He told the makers of the television programme If...things don't get better, a drama-documentary examining the increasing gap between rich and poor, that he is "entirely opposed to the idea that we should have any kind of gated communities...because they are invidious for social cohesion."

"If someone cannot walk along what should be a public street because it's blocked off, then it seems to me we are likely to find that the people being excluded are from particular groups, and I think that's an extraordinarily dangerous idea.

"We want an open society, which is cohesive, which is at ease with itself. Not one from which groups of people withdraw."

Back in Bow Quarter I asked Mr Nicholls if he thought living in a gated community could increase people's fear of crime and, consequently, their poorer neighbours outside the gate.

He pauses for a while then says he sought out a gated development because of the fear of being burgled rather than anything else but acknowledges this may be the case for some.

He told me: "Many of the women say they love living here but hate having to walk down from the tube because they are afraid of getting mugged, and there have been spates of muggings.

Bow Quarter is walled off from the surrounding area
"As soon as they get past the gates you can almost see a weight come off people's shoulders, you can almost see them breathe a sigh of relief."

It's a thought echoed by fellow resident, 34-year-old Julie Hicklin.

Ms Hicklin, while saying she isn't afraid or unduly worried by her neighbourhood beyond the gates, also acknowledges the feeling of relief and safety once through the gates.

"You leave the tube station knowing that in 10 minutes time you'll be through the gates, you can breathe, you're home," she says.

Haves and have-nots?

Both residents claim another reason for living in secure, gated communities is that they fear the police are not resourced well enough to adequately police areas.

While Sir Ian Blair may lament that sections of the community could be effectively buying their own security and so fragmenting society and undermining law and order, the rise of the gated community may continue until the public confidence is restored in policing.

As Mr Nicholls puts it: "I understand the deputy commissioner's concerns about patrolling and policing, but the truth is he doesn't have the resources to do the patrols etc.

"Of course, gated communities will lead to a haves and have-nots divide, but we need to be able to look out for ourselves and, perhaps places like Bow Quarter are allowing the police to concentrate their resources where they are needed."

If...things don't get better was broadcast in the UK on BBC Two on Wednesday, 17 March, 2004 at 2100 GMT.


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