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FEATURES - QUALITY OF LIVEABILITY

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For years politicians and the media have thought people most care about health and education, but all they care abo...
For years politicians and the media have thought people most care about health and education, but all they care about is having clean streets, says Joe Gill

It is a concept coined in California and it is now a chief concern of the government and councils. According to pollsters MORI, 'liveability' is a bigger issue than health, education, social care and transport in community life.

The media has made the NHS the number one issue and the government is under huge pressure to deliver, but the polls and focus groups tell a different story.

Ben Page, director of MORI's Social Research Institute, says that as a result of receiving so much attention from the government, media and inspectors, satisfaction with the performance of these key public services (excepting transport) is on the rise, despite the press headlines.

But that is not true with people's perceptions of the areas in which they live. The public's big concerns, according to the latest MORI surveys, are the need for more activities for teenagers, lower rates of crime and better roads and pavements. Transport and facilities for young children came in a close fourth and fifth place.

MORI summed up the findings of a quality of life audit, carried out on behalf of the Audit Commission, in the question: 'Is it clean, green and safe?'

Mr Page explains: 'At the time of the election the media was massively pushing the message that the government had to improve public services, particularly health, education and transport. But the reality is that the NHS is much more popular now than under the Tories.'

GPs get a 78% approval rating, he points out, which is a lot higher than public satisfaction with street cleaning.

Mr Page says part of the reason for this may be that, as they come under pressure to satisfy inspection regimes on education and social services, there is now much less freedom for local authorities to prioritise spending.'What gets measured gets done by and large, and one has to wonder whether this is a problem. Only 4% of people have any direct involvement in social services and a small minority use health services, but everyone has to use the streets where they live.'

Ben Plowden, director of Living Streets, a campaign for better use of public spaces, says: '[Councils] are doing what the government wants and we are starting to see an increase in satisfaction with education and health. They have given up on transport. But what is the cost of this locally?'

According to Mr Plowden, the cost is 'crap parks and bus stops, derelict waste land and main shopping areas designed for cars not pedestrians'. This is despite the data showing 80% of trips under one mile are by foot, often by mothers with children, old people and the biggest walkers of all, teenage girls.

The anxiety caused by young people hanging around in the streets is more of a reflection of the abandonment of public spaces in UK cities, argues Mr Plowden. 'People have lost the habit of seeing it as normal. Streets are about commerce, politics, spectacle, eating and drinking and their use should be planned with this in mind.'

In this context he points to urban renewal's relationship with 'small' issues like street cleaning. 'Grand planning also comes down to relentless picking up of crisp packets.'

Mr Plowden has looked at a number of other countries' experiences of urban planning and is a fan of Malmo in Sweden, where major urban roads have been given over to pedestrians and cyclists, and, perhaps surprisingly, US cities where rules on sidewalk width and placement of crossings at every junction make life easier for pedestrians in the car capital of the world.

Another key issue is the display of information, using street signs not just to point out where you are - something British street planners only achieve intermittently - but to help people get to where they want to go, as do signs in some European cities.

The neglect of nature, beauty and art as means to liven up public spaces contributes to the reality that 'most UK cities have become terribly grey', says Mr Plowden.

Both MORI and Living Streets concede the other possibility: that expectations of standards have risen so much that even where councils are doing a good job on creating 'liveable' public spaces, people now expect more.

This point was not lost on council delegates at the recent MORI conference on liveability. Mr Page adds that it is not enough to achieve success in creating desirable places to live, councils have to shout about it. 'Local government communication is a bit like shovelling leaflets down a mine shaft. It takes an awful lot of shovelling before you make any impact,' he said.

Other delegates pointed to a major impediment council street services have to deal with: people's attitudes to the streets. 'We need to get away from the 'me' society,' said one council officer. 'Litter should be in the curriculum the way it used to be. People complain about the environment, but still drop litter as if it has nothing to

do with them.'

Mr Plowden pleaded for a better understanding of people's motivations in the planning of public space. 'Without advocating some kind of sinister social engineering, there's a lot of evidence that people's behaviour is affected by the design of the public spaces where they live . . . [A key message is] do not create environments that will make people behave badly.'

In trying to get people to feel a sense of ownership of their areas, 'liveability' is plainly a goal councils cannot achieve without public participation.

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