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< Regeneration, < New Start editorial index page

Google Earth is a wonderful invention, and not only for people who like to spy on their neighbours. It gives you a perspective you might never have had before.

If you’re concerned about green space and housebuilding, for instance, Google Earth can tell you more about the impact of development plans than the sales pitch of the builders or their opponents’ objections.

But there are limits. A bird’s-eye view is no substitute for understanding the culture, qualities and feel of a neighbourhood. What looks from above like Millionaires’ Row can turn out to be bedsit-land, peeling and full of people who are down on their luck. The picture only tells part of the story.

So warning bells should sound when politicians give a broad brush, Google Earth view of society’s ills and then conclude it all needs to change.

David Cameron’s speech to the Royal Society this week painted a recognisable picture of a nation that lacks civility, but it was far from complete. He began: ‘I believe that how individuals behave towards each other in everyday life is key to everybody’s quality of life.’ Not much to argue with there. His next sentence was revealing: ‘…behaviour is bad and getting worse, but that we must not accept this as inevitable – we can and should reverse it.’

Hold your horses. Behaviour is bad? Clearly, in many instances. And getting worse? Read Fielding, Shakespeare or Dickens, and you’ll find enough bad behaviour to generate a deluge of asbos. And underlying David Cameron’s thesis is an unspoken invitation to believe nothing effective has been done so far, and he’s the man to change it.

There are a lot of positives in his arguments for devolution of power as a means to promote social responsibility. But to infer that the work done on community safety in the last decade is worthless is an insult to the practitioners and activists who have led the way. Consider the accomplishments of the East Manchester neighbour nuisance team, for instance, or neighbourhood wardens.

Yes, we have a problem with antisocial behaviour and the abrogation of social responsibility. But much has been achieved, and needs to be supported into the future. Let’s set aside the Google Earth generalisations.

Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine

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