Rise in gated communities could pose a threat to public services

Paul Kelbie,Scotland Correspondent
Saturday 17 September 2011 13:35

It is an increasingly familiar sight in Britain. A driver, dressed in designer labels, manoeuvres his expensive car through the red-brick gate posts of an estate, and draws up in front of electronic garage doors, with a CCTV camera watching his every move.

It is an increasingly familiar sight in Britain. A driver, dressed in designer labels, manoeuvres his expensive car through the red-brick gate posts of an estate, and draws up in front of electronic garage doors, with a CCTV camera watching his every move.

Security lights illuminate the short walk from the edge of the mono-blocked drive to the front door with its inbuilt intercom as the wrought iron gates to the immaculately manicured entrance of the luxury development close automatically behind him.

Welcome home to Fortress Britain.

A new study reveals there are more than 1,000 such "gated communities" in England, and demand for such "voluntary segregation" from the rest of society is growing, particularly among young professionals attracted by the prestige of such developments and fear of crime.

However expansion of the trend, which began in the US almost 20 years ago, is causing concern that these new ghettos of affluence are dividing society and could undermine public services.

Research from Glasgow University's department of urban studies has revealed that fortress neighbourhoods are no longer found only in the affluent south: 38 per cent of local authorities now have at least one, and two local councils have more than 50 such compounds within their jurisdiction.

"We think there are already about 1,000 gated communities in England and at least another 50 in the pipeline," said Dr Rowland Atkinson, from the research team commissioned by the office of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.

"The greatest concentration is undoubtedly in London and the southeast of England but we have found evidence of a lot more across the country and they seem to becoming almost a dominant feature of development."

A recent international conference organised by the university into the phenomenon of gated communities around the world suggested authorities have been slow to wake up to the possible impact on society.

If the trend continues to follow America there could be a threat to the wider community as people object to paying twice for public services such as waste-disposal, sewerage or even policing. Recent court cases in the US have seen several groups of residents of gated communities challenging their obligations to pay local taxes.

Academics have also voiced concern that it is younger people who are most in favour of such developments.

Although in many cases the Glasgow study found that police forces like the idea of gated communities as a "glorified neighbourhood watch", the estates do not always work as crime-free havens. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, while added security may deter some criminals, others are attracted by the level of affluence.

There is also concern for the future of children brought up behind locked gates. "We don't know how they will engage with society outside their own cloistered community," said Dr Atkinson. "There is evidence that kids feel very afraid when they go outside the gates and it could create an even worse 'them and us' attitude for the future. We should see ghettoised affluence as being just as problematic as ghettoised deprivation.

"The term 'gated community' is actually an oxymoron. Recent studies show that most people who buy such houses want privacy and don't want to get involved with their neighbours or local community."

Many of the fears raised by the Glasgow researchers have already been voiced by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors. Andrew Smith, a spokesman, said: "If we don't want a future of gated, wealthy, high security ghettos sitting alongside ghettos of drugs, crime and joblessness then there need to be proper policies put in place to ensure we have more balanced communities which are less divisive."

However a spokesman for Berkeley Homes, one of the leading builders of gated developments in the UK, said there was clearly a demand for such properties.

"A lot of the time these developments are dictated by the need to provide dedicated protected parking spaces in busy city centres. People spending a lot of money on a home want security intercoms, cameras and lighting as part of the package. It's as much about prestige and aspiration than fear of crime," he said.

Isle of Dogs: a tale of two housing estates

By Arifa Akbar

Stephen Clarke, a resident of Millennium Wharf, a Thames-side development, gives a succinct view of his gated community: "It's rubbish living here."

The complex of luxury apartments in East London, with views of the Millennium Dome, has its own concierge and CCTV cameras. Residents gain entry with a swipe card or security code and pay £1700 a year in maintenance fees.

But for Mr Clarke, 28, a singer who bought his £345,000 home as an investment it has been a let down. "I've been burgled twice in three years so it's not exactly Ford Knox,'' he says. He was also dismayed by the lack of community spirit and the hostility from tenants of the nearby council estates.

"It's not the kind of place where you can pop round to a neighbour's for a cup of sugar. I am not even allowed a pet. It's for anal people who drive [BMW] Z3s and go to All Bar One,'' he said.

But Craig Fergusson, 26, an accountant, felt far safer in the complex. "I was burgled in my last flat ... so I feel a lot more secure here. But we still have problems with the children who live in the nearby estates. Some of them have learned the code to get in and steal our bikes,'' he said. However, the council residents felt it was the gated community that was to blame.

Linda Brown, 43, a single mother of two who has lived on Bethnal Green and Victoria Park estate for 12 years, said the expensive cars and locked gates attracted criminals. "The burglaries just spill over on to our estate. And our children are shouted at and made to feel they can't play outside the house,'' she said. Her neighbour Shirley Sweeney, 60, added that the gated complex created community hostility. "I've lived on the Isle of Dogs for 37-years and it used to have a great sense of togetherness. Now it is like we have been segregated.''

But for Abbi Johnston, 31, an investment banker living at Millennium Wharf, says her kind is not to blame. The mother of one said: "There may be a bit of animosity in the community, but what's to stop them over there from bettering themselves?''

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