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There are times when it’s hard to be honest in public life. Times when your paying customers insist on being told everything’s under control, that the enemy has been defeated, the marriage is strong and the politically engineered sustainable community is just around the next bend.

This fictional community is sutainable because everyone who can work is working or actively seeking work and those who can’t are cared for. People volunteer and act responsibly because they respect themselves and their fellow human beings. Crime and antisocial behaviour are low and everything in the proverbial garden is flowering in an eternal spring.

But this vision is increasingly being questioned. The question isn’t whether we should strive for sustainable communities, but whether in fact there are a range of communities that don’t look the same or act the same but are equally sustainable.

About a month ago the Competition Commission argued in an interim report that many people actually like the personal service they get from their doorstep lenders. They don’t feel threatened, exploited or disempowered and they don’t run to Citizen’s Advice to complain half as much as you’d expect. People aren’t supposed to think like that, but it appears they do.

In recent weeks a report on debt by Martin Weale, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Reseearch, argued that although people on the lowest incomes were 25% more indebted than the population as a whole, this wasn’t necessarily a bad or unsustainable thing.

Respected academics aren’t supposed to say such things but he did, arguing that people use credit to tide them over because there’s a temporary dip in their income or because they’re facing a large expense.

This week a new Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on drug dealing has argued that drug dealers are often part of the community, the kind of person you’d greet and ask after the family rather than the kind who’d make you lock your doors and hide.

This may sound hugely offensive to those who’ve never lived or worked in such areas, yet it may be hinting at something we should all think about: communities aren’t necessarily falling apart just because they don’t look proper to policymakers. The policy implication isn’t necessarily ‘abandon all hope’ and leave them to it but to start asking questions and begin to appreciate that,maybe, there is a whole spectrum of sustainable communities.

Susan Downer, assistant editor

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