Way back in 1997/98 the Government was all about neighbourhoods. That was how our cities were going to be transformed, by small groups of people coming together and improving their local areas. Sure Start was based on neighbourhoods, and the fledgling Neighbourhood Statistics Service was set up by the Office for National Statistics. Then someone realised that to come up with statistics for areas, they need to have boundaries. And that if you want to make sure that any data you release for these small areas don't disclose the identity of individuals then these boundaries need to align with pre-existing areas that you've already published data for. And of course, you probably need to know the number of people living in your neighbourhood to do anything meaningful with the fact that there were 53 births in the area last year...
And lo, neighbourhoods became wards and all was fine and dandy. Except that wards are a political construct, and they change in order to keep electoral numbers to a reasonable level in each. Quite often your ward bears little relation to where you feel you live. But of course data and feelings don't really go hand in hand. I used to live in Lee. When we moved there we were in St Mildred's ward. This had no impact on my life if I'm honest. I had no real idea who St Mildred was, or why her name was on my ward. But then there was a reorganisation and we came under Lee Green ward. Now here was an area I could identify with. Particularly when the good voters of Lee Green ousted its Labour councillors and appointed a team of hard working Lib Dems in their place. People who live in Lee Green and care a great deal about it.
We then moved. To the Corbett Estate on the other side of Hither Green station. Technically Catford according to the Post Office, though it was considered to be in Hither Green at the time it was built, and in Catford South ward. I can't say I feel any attachment to Catford South. Hither Green is my nearest station and these days I mostly travel to work from there (Catford traffic makes that option a nightmare - it can take an hour to get to Catford station at the moment, a journey of just over a mile). When I was off on maternity leave, and on the days I do childcare, I spent most of my time at community centres which happen to come under Whitefoot ward. Catford South itself has very little going on for babies and toddlers that isn't run by religious groups with huge waiting lists to join. Or I spent time in Hither Green and Lee's parks. There are no parks in Catford South itself.
What prompted me to think about this was a leaflet I got through the door inviting me to the Catford South local assembly. The local assemblies are a great idea and give people a chance to input into what's going on in their neighbourhood (that word again). Unfortunately for me, I have far more of a personal stake in what's going on in Hither Green (Lewisham Central ward) or Lee (Lee Green ward). And what happens to the facilities I use in Whitefoot ward. The projects and initiatives for Catford South just don't relate to me at all.
It's a shame that neighbourhoods ended up drifting back to being wards, a real opportunity to get people doing something different at local level has been lost. On the other hand, if no one could measure the impact of any initiatives that were put in place, would they really be worth doing?