Home is a word loaded with meaning. It can be a building you have painstakingly made your own, the changing seasons in your local park, casual encounters in a street or the memory of a country to which you’ll never return. Whatever it is, though, it is part of the fabric of our identity.
Last week an eminent academic asked the question: ‘Whatever happened to home as an anchor in an uncertain and hyper-mobile world?’ His worry was that as housing and social policy become ever more geared to serving the interests of economic growth, policymakers are becoming blind to the human consequences of their decisions.
The raison d’etre of places has always been economic: they have grown around manufacture, creativity and exchange. So there’s a logic behind housing policies that follow labour markets. But it works both ways: growing economies gravitate towards places with a particular character and identity, whether it’s Weimar Republic Berlin or 21st century Austin and Seattle.
Governments like to think they are responsible for such successes. So the DCLG’s anthem is ‘community, opportunity, prosperity’. It’s a strapline, though, that glosses over often irreconcilable tensions.
If we accept that the primary purpose of a settlement is economic, the corollary of success is the shanty town and of failure the ghost town. If we want a super-mobile workforce, we must accept the unwelcome by-products of disrupted parenting and education, and disengaged citizens.
If we put place first, there’s no guarantee that even the glossiest rebranding will bring investment. Home ownership may encourage people to build social capital, but can leave us stranded in an economic downturn.
The tensions need not be irresolvable. The UK is compact enough to offer a good mix of housing and job options for the mobile and stable communities for those who stay put. But that mix is best determined by towns and cities working at levels appropriate to them. Above all, it means working with the grain of the choices, bonds and values that give people meaning and purpose. When we become fixated on economic growth as the route to fulfilment, holistic thinking evaporates.
We are poorer for it. There are few, with the possible exception of government economists, whose dying words will be: ‘I wish I’d spent more time in the office.’ Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine