The last time I was on Cluan Place, everyone I spoke to wanted the same two things.
It was 2015, not long after Belfast’s flag protests. Young Loyalists would throw rocks at Catholic kids, flee down the nearest alleyway on their home turf, hop over a garden wall, and hide from the police. The people I was talking with – whose houses backed onto this alleyway – would open their curtains and find a riotous teenager in their backyard. The first thing they wanted was a gate, guarding the close behind their homes. I’ll come to the second later.
I returned to Cluan Place last week. The back alleyway is now blocked by a ten foot steel gate. “It’s great,” said a woman steering a pushchair down the cul-de-sac “so long as people remember to shut it”.
In a sense, it is a good thing. A community wanted something, and they got it. That’s how democracy is meant to work. But in another sense, it’s deeply worrying: twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement, people are still relying on defensive architecture to protect them from sectarian violence.
And this corner of East Belfast is not unusual. For all of the progress since the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland is still a country decorated by flags divided by fences. For all of the talk that these so-called “peace walls” will come down, there are as many miles of metal and barbed wire dividing Catholic and Protestant communities from each other as there were when Tony Blair declared in 1997 that he could feel the hand of history on his shoulder.
But this article isn’t about Northern Ireland. Because, the main thing which struck me when I revisited Belfast last week was not how different it was, but how familiar it has become.
Since I had last been in Belfast, I’ve been trying to get my head around another one of the nations of the UK: with Civil Society Futures, the inquiry into how English civil society can flourish in a fast changing world, my colleagues and I have been visiting and talking to people in towns and cities across England. And one worrying trend consistently strikes me.
Walk around urban areas from the Newcastle to Surrey and you find new blocks of flats huddled behind high walls and locked gates and decorated with snarling CCTV gargoyles. Whether they’re whole gated communities, or individual homes which people have chosen to fortify with astounding arrays of defensive architecture, people seem to be more and more comfortable with locking themselves away from the world.
And – as with Northern Ireland – not all of the divides have fences down them. Often, you have to talk to people to know where their boundaries are. In Penzance, we were told about children who live on council estates in the town but have never visited the beach: they don’t see it as ‘theirs’ to go to. Seaside Cornwall is pockmarked with ghettos for white, middle-class second-homers, and its working-class residents are being forced out.
At the same time, another strand of what you might call the Ulsterification of England has unfolded. Wandering around the housing estates of central Oldham, there were more flags – George Crosses, Union Flags and even a Royal Standard flying high over someone’s front garden – than I saw on the famous streets of West Belfast last week. Across much of England, it’s become normal to fly the national standard in a way it never used to be.
In some ways, of course, there is no comparison between the two countries. The people either side of England’s gates didn’t live through a generation of civil war. Most have never heard gunfire or bomb blasts. Unlike Belfast or Derry, you don’t often meet drinkers in pubs in central Sunderland with bullet-dented skulls or tales of being tortured by the British army. In fact, quite the reverse.
Between 1995 and 2016, the number of recorded incidents of violent crime fell in England and Wales fell from 3.8 million to 1.3 million. The number of burglaries has collapsed through the floor – from 2,445,000 in 1993 to 650,000 in 2017. The total number of reported crimes fell from 19 million in 1994 to 6.7 million in 2014. As with most of the Western world, England has become notably safer over the last twenty years, with potential reasons ranging from the banning of leaded petrol to the rise of computer games and of the increased cost of alcohol.
And yet, as the country has become safer, we’ve become more and more inclined to cut ourselves off from each other, much more fearful of our neighbours. (And it seems unlikely that the rise of defensive architecture has caused the fall in violent crime or burglaries – academic research has “consistently failed to show that defended enclaves are less vulnerable to crime than ungated neighbourhoods” according to Sheffield University’s Sarah Blandy).
Of course, some of this is because perceptions and reality often differ. In 2016, 60% of adults believed that crime rates had gone up in recent years. But it seems to me that there is another answer for this division.
Measured by income, the UK is currently the sixth most unequal country in the OECD rich countries club. Look across the other countries at the top of the table, and most – Israel, the USA, South Africa, Turkey – are also living through democratic crises – and most are also known for their gated enclaves where the white and powerful prune their hedges without having to look at the world outside.
Measure inequality by asset wealth, and things are even worse. Because the UK and its Overseas Territories and Crown Protectorates is by far the most important network of tax havens and secrecy areas on Earth – and the money laundering capital of the world – it’s very hard to get accurate figures for the wealth of our richest residents. But even using official information on the assets that people do actually declare, the richest 10% now own 1,154 times what the poorest 10% own. And that’s before we consider the difference between the richest 0.1% and the rest of us.
But we don’t just divide ourselves by wealth. It’s not an original observation to say that, while migrant communities have got better at mixing with each other in recent years, middle class white people of English origin continue to huddle together in suburban ghettos. Research from Demos in 2015 showed that “ethnic minority children, who now represent 26 per cent of all school students in England, are substantially more likely than White British children to attend schools in which ethnic minorities are in the majority.”
But what has perhaps surprised us more is how much we divide ourselves by generation: ever more students live in city-centre accommodation blocks with security guards and swipe-access key-cards. Ever more pensioners are locked away in old folks’ homes in coastal towns which increasingly become retirement villages. In much of the country, the young people we spoke to wanted more than anything else to leave: it’s normal for Northern Ireland to talk about its brain drain, but the youth is being sucked out of huge swathes of England, too. For people in a huge number of places, success in life is seen to mean leaving your community. As one person in Penzance told us “I have got a 20 year old now, he is in uni up in Bristol and where he goes from there, he doesn’t know. It’s probably, it’s like everyone else. He isn’t likely to take a step back and coming back to his community.”
And then we’re cut into smaller units too. Communities have dissolved as homes have become commodities. “Flexible” working and freelance culture have broken down work-place solidarity and trade union membership has collapsed. As public assets have been sold off, ever more decisions are made through the market – one pound one vote. And so we built an online architecture through which we can meet each other – but only those we wish to be ‘friends’ with, or to shout abuse at. It’s no wonder that we struggle with democratic processes. It wasn’t Brexit that divided us, it’s just the lens through which we saw how divided we had already become.
Looked at this way, the fences and defensive architecture of modern England are just one visible rip in a society being torn apart. Differences in wealth make it harder and harder for us to talk to each other, and to build genuine communities across ever-greater difference. Atomised and often lonely individuals hide behind ever higher walls, shouting at each other online.
But we’ve found something else too, something much more hopeful. Because the second thing that everyone I spoke to on Belfast’s Cluan Place wanted was an end to the division. And travelling around England, that’s what we found too. People don’t like living behind fences. They don’t like being divided by walls.
In Mansfield, we met the ‘welcome committee’, who help people settle into the area whether they’ve moved there from Sunderland or Somalia. At Hack Oldham – a new space on a resurrected high street – a young self-identifying geek taught an octogenarian how to use the community laser-cutter to make the dolls houses that her increasingly shaky hands had prevented her from continuing to build. CoLab in Exeter connects people who would otherwise be isolated.
Talk to protest groups across the country and they tell you that – whether they’re campaigning for or against a new housing development, opposing cuts or fighting off fracking – that organising against power has helped them build lifelong connections with those around them.
Everywhere we’ve been, people have talked about a desire to break down the barriers they see springing up between them and their neighbours. But often, they tell us, they don’t know how. For English civil society to flourish in our fast changing world, we must begin to answer that question.