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Wednesday, 9 January, 2002, 11:09 GMT
Good neighbours, good friends?
A Tory frontbencher has set out his vision for a more neighbourly society, in a bid to cut crime. But is this just an Australian soap opera-style fantasy, asks BBC News Online's Megan Lane.

Shortly before dawn last Thursday, the shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin let a man into his London flat to use the toilet. The stranger promptly snatched his wallet, mobile phone and other items and sprinted off.

Zero tolerance by another name
Oliver Letwin wants:
graffiti cleaned up
Wreaked cars towed away
Petty criminals turned good
More community coppers
Nave Mr Letwin may have been, but the incident served as a convenient example when he unveiled his plans to tackle crime with kindness on Tuesday.

In a major shift on Tory thinking on law and order, he dreams of a "neighbourly society" in which we respect each other and our surroundings too much to be nasty. "It is a sad reflection on our society if you cannot sensibly let someone go to the loo," he has said.

The Home Secretary David Blunkett too, in urging new citizens to settle into the British way of life, has held up the custom of neighbourliness as a way for us all to get along.

But have our politicians been watching too many Aussie soap operas and Doris Day films? Neighbours don't always make good friends, as anyone whose property is bordered by a fast-growing Leylandii hedge will attest.

Blighted existence

Yet in Grimethorpe, a former mining village in Yorkshire, residents have rediscovered their community spirit by doing more for each other.

Broken window in derelict estate
A vandalised window will attract other vandals
In 1995 a third of all residents were unemployed and young people were disillusioned. Crime was on the increase, yet the villagers were still bitter towards the police after the miners' strike a decade earlier.

Danny Gillespie, who set up Grimethorpe's first neighbourhood watch group that year, says community spirit is burning bright once more.

In just four years, burglaries dropped by 23% and auto-theft by 44%. In 2000, the village won a national crime-fighting award in the neighbourhood watch awards.

They started by cleaning up graffiti (and returned time and again to repaint the vandalised walls). To prevent car break-ins, they turned derelict land into a parking lot complete with security lights so drivers could park off the street.

Oliver Letwin
Oliver Letwin: "Perhaps I was too neighbourly"
"We did a lot of work with the police to stop people driving around on illegal motorbikes looking for houses to break into. In all, we have gathered about 80 stolen motorbikes and smashed them up," says Mr Gillespie.

The villagers also hold weekly fundraisers at the local pub to pay for youth discos, security lights for each elderly person's home, and an electro-cardiogram for the local doctor's surgery.

"Now if a child throws a snowball through a window, we go and talk to them and they don't do it again. It's all about relationships - we've built good relationships with young people by doing things for them as well."

Love thy neighbourliness

In some cases, the bonds forged can go even further.

Prince Charles peering into model of high-rise flats
Social engineering: Proximity can raise tensions
In Paris - where folk can barely raise a curt "bonjour" at the best of times - flat-dwellers in one district took part in a trial neighbourhood party scheme in 1999. The ice thawed so much that the scheme went nationwide the following year.

Atanase Perifan, the director of Immeubles en Fete (Operation Flat Party), said although stress and crime had widened the gulf between those living in apartment blocks, people only needed a little urging to bridge the gap.

"We found that good relations lasted well beyond the evening's fun," he said. "Two old ladies got together and have been inseparable ever since, and two people have got married."

See also:

08 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Tories signal law and order shift
04 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Letwin falls prey to 'loo trick' thieves
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