Somewhere along the way, we have become detached from the places we inhabit. The houses we build, the neighbourhoods we live in, the villages, towns, communities and suburbs we make up: the landmarks of our lives are in a state of disrepair and the relationships and institutions that hold them together are fraying. It is time we rebuilt the connection between people and the places they call home.
This is partly about what we build - the process of development. Too many new builds are ugly, out of place and isolating. But it is mostly about how we live - and the loss of the idea of stewardship. Stewardship is a politically fashionable word with an ancient theological meaning - the belief that humanity has a responsibility to take care of the world given to us by God. You do not have to be personally faithful to appreciate the principle that we owe our places a duty of care in exchange for the beauty, security and community we expect from them.
But this principle has been eroded over many years. The more people have moved around for work and study, the more families have disintegrated, the more tight-knit communities have disentangled, the more our attachments and feeling of obligation to specific places have loosened. Today two thirds of people feel that they belong to their local neighbourhood, but official data shows that fewer than that say they trust their neighbours, or are volunteering for local projects or joining community groups. Habitation, once reciprocal, is becoming transactional.
A similar pattern is true of landowners and managers, whose commitment to their places have withered in step. For much of history, beneficial owners - whether gentry, councils or civic trusts - held land for generations, aligning their interests with the long-term cultivation of beauty and amenity for residents, and took pride in that enduring connection. Today, much land is tacked to quarterly market cycles and sorted into short-term holdings that leave little room for stewardship in the true sense of the word, and often actively militate against it.
At both an institutional and an individual level, then, we need to restore the relationship between people and places. But what would this new place-based contract look like? The most basic requirement should be that it is based on much higher levels of investment of trust in a place and the people who live in it. Because social trust is heavily correlated with a raft of positive outcomes, from democratic participation to lower transaction costs for businesses, as the work of Harvard academic Robert Putnam in particular has shown.
Local residents and business tenants should be entrusted with their places, and offered a chance to take a greater stake in the fortunes of their neighbourhood. The most radical policy would see many more communities empowered to form community land trusts, like the model pioneered in Westminster’s Walterton and Elgin Estate since 1988. Since taking ownership, residents have invested in the built environment, improved density and built dozens of affordable homes.
Even incremental change on the same principles could deliver profound results. Tenants could be given direct control over funding for works to improve their estates. Local conservation charities could be given the chance to maintain green spaces in the local area and residents could be encouraged to form networks to plant trees, install street furniture and fix local problems. Local firms could play a greater role in supporting public activities, including by deepening the scope of Business Improvement Districts. In doing so, the bond between people and places will be deepened, and greater loyalty will flow.
At an institutional level, this will mean letting go of small obligations but simultaneously accepting a much larger responsibility: the active, disciplined partnership that place-making demands. Landowners and managers will need to replace half-hearted mechanisms for periodic consultation with robust forums for constant decision-making in conjunction with local residents. Some decisions may take longer, but they will be better and more enduring as a result, and places will benefit from the combined attention of owners and residents. It is this spirit that the Grosvenor Community Charter channels in those principles of openness and accountability.
Given stronger places tend to deliver higher economic returns and deeper reserves of social capital, such new forms of stewardship should be actively incentivised by the Government, through funding and tax incentives. At present the opposite is the case, given the way capital gains tax exemptions encourage short-term sale over long-term management. The proposal by the Building Beautiful, Building Better Commission for “place-specific partnerships, in which local people and civic leaders are involved, supported but not controlled by local government” is the right instinct.
Because as much as government can help, it cannot pioneer a new model itself. Modern stewardship, if we want to call it that, will come from enlightened estate managers and landowners innovating at pace in different places, sharing their lessons widely to show the benefits, and collectively iterating a new model for a local community that can be scaled across the country. There is little time to waste.
No home is made by a single individual alone. The places we inhabit are constructed from people we live among and the social institutions we rely upon - and the responsibility for maintaining them is shared between all of us. When this responsibility is shouldered well, the deterioration in our social fabric will wane and our sense of belonging will return. Stewardship is an idea whose time has come, again.
Will Tanner is Director of the thinktank Onward, where he launched a landmark two year review into Repairing our Social Fabric. He has previously served as Deputy Director of Policy in No.10 Downing Street and was a special adviser in the Home Office. He is a Trustee of the Young Foundation.
This piece is one of six essays about public engagement from activists, influencers and frontline workers commissioned by Grosvenor as part of their Positive Space Community Charter initiative. The full list is: