Leading Article: When next door is for sale

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This week someone burned down the Chambers' new home. Their house in the village of Crockenhill in Kent had been bought for them by a Housing Association. But some of the other residents had been alarmed - the Chambers are a large family from a problem estate. One villager explained that there had been a petition to stop the incomers. "We had heard that they were undesirables", she said. Local residents even bid unsuccessfully to buy the house themselves.

Neither Mr or Mrs Chambers, nor any of their children, have criminal records. They are a large, rumbustious family from the wrong side of the tracks, with auto parts in the garden and Mr Blobby painted on their outside wall. The move to the new house offered them the chance of escape from the estate. Now there is no house to move to.

For Crockenhill read also Rosemount. This week new gates went up in the white, middle class Chicago suburb, policed by armed security men charged with keeping the riff-raff out. If you do not look OK you can be stopped and shipped back through the gates. Rosemountians themselves are happy. They believe that crime is bound to drop. Residents of bordering areas feel differently. For them it is the ultimate insult; a statement that they are not good enough for their neighbours.

It is not hard to understand what is going on here. When the "For Sale" sign goes up next door, we wonder who we are going to get: wisteria or hysteria, party-loving students or house-proud newlyweds? But most of us take the rough with the smooth. The youth who spends all his time outside, messily reassembling motor-bikes, may act as a real deterrent to house breakers. A brawling brat may well become a civilised adolescent if smiled at and treated civilly. Engaged tolerance is what makes a real community.

But if communities decide, like Crockenhills, to define themselves through exclusion and paranoia, they are not only acting illiberally, they are also creating the very nightmare that they most fear. The studies into that fearsome late twentieth century phenomenon, the underclass, show that it is brought into being by a geographic concentration of certain problems. When boys are brought up in communities where all the men are unemployed or criminal, that is what they will become.

It follows that the best way to deal with such concentrations is to break them up. Children of "problem" families stand a far better chance if brought up alongside those from other backgrounds. So, as much as possible we need to get people off the estates and into the Crockenhills and Rosemounts. Communitarian Crockenhillers, would not ask what the Chambers' would do to them; but rather what they could all do for each other.