Given the gloom and despondency which so often accompanies any discussion of civic life- declining membership of associations, apathy, lower levels of participation- it was a joy to turn up to the annual meeting of the St John's Wood Society this month to find standing room only and a lively discussion about various aspects of life in NW8. I anticipate the same later in the autumn when it comes to the meeting of the South East Bayswater Residents' Association, which similarly seems to sprinkle some magic dust on the pavements of W2. Less affluent communities often struggle harder to generate membership, which is why the loss of most support for the neighbourhood work that was being undertaken in Church Street, Westbourne, Harrow Road and Queen's Park is so much to be regretted. Yet despite the steeper climb those areas face when it comes to increasing involvement, Church Street perseveres, with volunteers helping to run a pet shop to cross-subsidise the Neighbourhood Centre, Westbourne neighbourhood team helping to consult over the Masterplan for developing the area, and of course Queen's Park got itself on the map for voting in favour of the country's first ‘urban parish council'. When it comes to it, on issues of real local concern, like the closure of the Jubilee sports centre and concerns around gangs and serious youth violence, locals pack the meeting halls to have their say.
This is all as it should be, and modest financial support to keep such activities going is money well spent- feeling ‘a sense of community' and ‘knowing your neighbours' are attributes closely connected with greater well-being, better health and lower crime. But the truth is, such activities don't run themselves. They take considerable organisational effort and resources, some of which can be delivered by volunteers, but not all of which can- and even where volunteers exist, some money needs to be raised and subscriptions and sponsorship both favour the already better off. If the challenges are greater, and the money flows less easily, then either those less affluent neighbourhoods will need support or they will once again fall behind. London is changing fast in any event- the population is growing, people move around far faster, especially in the fast-growing private rented sector, and an estimated 60% of central London residential homes are being sold to overseas buyers, who, whatever their other qualities, may be less inclined to pitch in to local life. We can deal with these pressures, but once way or another, we have to support those voluntary, amenity, civic, residents and tenants organisations which champion neighbourliness and a decent quality of life in the city.