In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

Balanced Communities

In the argument over applying an Article 4 Direction over a city, which would remove permitted development rights, an identifiable refuge is the concept of “balanced communities”. The agenda preceding Bath and North East Somerset Council’s feasibility study, published in the Cabinet meeting on 28th March 2012, stated: “It [the feasibility study] found that in relation to indicators of environmental degradation and social impacts (e.g. crime, noise, anti-social behaviour) there is not an apparent strong link with HMOs.” The main justification for the implementation of an Article 4 Direction across Bath was “very high concentrations of HMOs in parts of the City, it is this that this is the primarily cause of harm, impacting on community balance.” One of Bath & North East Somerset Council’s policies is towards the cultivation of “balanced communities”. Community balance is the final point in the Article 4 Direction debate, creating what, at first instance, seems to be a self-evident and irrefutable argument in favour of implementing an Article 4 Direction.

Underlying the disquiet over balanced communities, it is implicitly assumed that balanced communities represent the norm, whereas imbalanced communities are an avoidable aberration. A balanced community, according to the National HMO Lobby, is one “which approximates national demographic norms”. This may be considered in terms of broad groups such as families, the elderly, students, young people and professionals. However, the council collects demographic data in each ward, and across the district, and age demographics will be used as a reliable proxy for housing types. Very few wards in Bath are demographically similar to the district of Bath & North East Somerset as a whole, and even less are approximately representative of the entire country. According to B&NES Council Ward Profiles 2007, some wards have disproportionately large numbers of people between the ages of 18 and 24, such as Kingsmead, whilst other wards will have disproportionately few amounts of young people, such as Lambridge. Walcot has a disproportionately small amount of people over the age of 65. These discrepancies become even more numerous when we consider community balance on the basis of living mode, income level, occupational category, ethnic composition and so on. We can conclude that ‘imbalanced communities’, despite being the supposed aberration, are in fact, the norm. The reasons for imbalanced communities lie within the different varieties of housing that occur in each ward. The incomes of individuals and families, along with their needs and desires for space, determine which variety of housing, either flats, HMOs, terraced houses, semi-detached or detached houses, which those people can live in. Thus, the age demography of an area is usually determined by precisely what houses are built in that area, and that ‘imbalanced communities’ are derived from the variations in house prices across the city.

The proponents of balanced communities often speak of people as members of abstract groups, and draw their conclusions about the virtuosity of balanced communities from how these groups supposedly interact. Such abstractions draw attention away from the interactions of actual living and breathing human beings, sculpting a complex series of human emotions and conversations into simplistic generalisations. These abstractions also lay claim to knowledge that no person can possibly know: how families and individuals, who have not yet spoken, will interconnect once they are living next to each other.

Balanced communities are not the norm, but political groups may still yet be interested in cultivating them. This assumes that families and individuals, who all have their own plans and ideas for the future, are movable like chess pieces on a board. Whilst the National HMO Lobby claims that their view on balanced communities is descriptive rather than prescriptive, balanced communities are inherently prescriptive, as it requires either the movement of people into such communities, or the prior knowledge of where families and individuals, some of whom may not have even thought about moving into Bath, will move around the city.

Given the information deficiency about specific sets of people, such as young families and students, it is not possible to definitively say that the student influx, by itself, is the cause of community imbalance within Bath. However, using age demographics as a proxy, we can see that imbalanced communities represent the norm, and not the abnormality in Bath. A similar situation can be said to be true of other cities through Britain. The proponents of balanced communities may then assert that certain areas are imbalanced now, when previously they were balanced, but it is likely that such areas were imbalanced before, but have undergone a drastic change and become imbalanced in a new direction. An Article 4 Direction may have the consequence of ‘embalming’ the areas imbalanced by the density of HMOs, as landlords would not risk turning a HMO back into a standard family home, in case they could not perform the reverse transformation. Hence, the Article 4 Direction would not be able to promulgate ‘balanced’ communities, but would ensure the ossification of ‘imbalanced’ ones.

NOTEThis is a modified excerpt from the submission I made to Bath and North East Somerset Council’s consultation on the Article 4 Direction.

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