Sunday Times, 4 April 2004
Gated communities: the scourge of society? No, just safe from vandals, says MONICA PORTER
Three years ago my partner Nick and I moved into a small, newly-built gated community in north London, comprising five houses. I realise that some people don’t approve of these private developments sealed off from the surrounding neighbourhood by electric security gates, claiming they are socially divisive by creating a ‘them and us’ situation.
There could be an element of truth in this, but forgive me if I don’t apologise for ‘living behind the gates’. Before we bought our house Nick lived on an ordinary street in Hammersmith, where his car was regularly vandalised (then stolen), delinquent kids threw stones at his windows, and he was burgled when his front door was once left open for three minutes. I lived in a mansion block in Maida Vale, where the parking (and double-parking) was a daily source of misery. My car was once nearly towed away when I stopped for a moment to unload the shopping.
Once we were safely behind our new gates, however, all these urban nightmares disappeared. We have an effective ‘buffer zone’ between us and whatever nuisance is lurking out on the streets. So, no more tedious door-to-door salesmen, religious nutters, or worse, the scam-operators who try to prise you apart from your money. Vandals and thieves can’t get to our cars, or at least it’s not worth the extra effort when there are easier pickings elsewhere – and the same applies to burglars. And the pure joy of being able to drive straight to my front door, every time, without hassle from anyone is something I will never take for granted as a seasoned city-dweller.
But there’s a downside, as well, to living in our cosy enclave. Just as our gates exclude the irritants and riff-raff, they also sometimes keep out those who we want to come in. If a delivery man calls while we’re out, he can’t put a card through our letterbox. The local Neighbourhood Watch rep regularly peers forlornly through the gates, unable to deliver her leaflets. And a number of our friends – otherwise clever people – seem incapable of using the keypad-operated system at the gate, meant to alert us to their presence via the phone line. There is a secret code for opening the gate, but naturally only the residents know it…oh, and the postmen and dustmen, a newspaper boy, a couple of char-ladies, our occasional gardener, a few close relatives and my son’s girlfriend. After a while, when we reckon too many people have the code, we just change it and start all over again. Then nobody can get in.
The gates themselves are temperamental, with inscrutable inner workings. And like the country’s railway system, it takes very little to screw them up. A few centimetres of snow last winter interfered with the gates’ sensors and they spent a day opening and closing all by themselves, to the amusement of passers-by. On other occasions the electricity has cut out and they refused to open altogether, trapping us inside like prison inmates.
We have a management company and each house pays an annual service charge of £300. Our biggest single item of expenditure is insuring the common parts – a small block-paved driveway, two low brick walls and the gates – which for some ludicrous reason costs £550, significantly more than the cost of insuring our entire three-storey house and all its contents. Running a balance sheet and keeping minutes are dull chores, but our occasional management meetings are a good opportunity to bond with fellow-residents over a bottle of wine and gossip about the new neighbours across the road…
The concept of the gated community originated in the United States – the first was established in Los Angeles in 1915 – and they have become so commonplace there that 15 per cent of Americans now live in them. In the U.K. they began to take off in the past five to ten years and today there are about a thousand, with a total of 100,000 or so residents. Most are in London and the Southeast, but they have sprung up in other regions, as well.
The Northeast boasts one of the largest and most exclusive – Wynyard Woods, in Sunderland. It was established in 1994 on nine square miles owned by former Newcastle United chairman Sir John Hall. Footballers from both Newcastle United and Sunderland have homes there and even ex-England captain Alan Shearer lived there until recently. It has not one, but two main gates, and in addition many of the houses have their own individual gates and high walls. With its own pub-restaurant, supermarket, golf course and cricket pitch, it’s got better facilities than most country villages.
According to Anna Minton, author of a comprehensive report on GCs for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, home-owners are attracted by the ‘prestige’ of living in them. ‘There is also a perception that they offer security,’ she says, ‘but there is no proof of this. In fact evidence from the U.S. suggests that gated developments increase the incidence of crime – partly because they are such obvious targets, and partly because the electric gates make them hard to police effectively.’
Properties in GCs tend to be quite pricey – ranging from £92,000 for a two-bedroom flat in Merseyside to £2m-plus for a luxury house in inner London – but Minton’s survey showed that it isn’t the very rich who live in them, but the ‘merely pretty affluent’. She says: ‘Young professionals, who tend to see their home as an investment, are more likely to be interested in buying into one than older people, who usually want to continue living in the sort of traditional, socially-mixed communities they’ve been used to all their lives.’
But if my own GC is anything to go by, it is difficult to generalise: our neighbours are a sixty-something businessman and his much younger wife, a newly-wed couple in their thirties, a retired couple whose main home is in the country, and an intriguing Nigerian geologist who turns up in between expeditions with an entourage. (Foreigners favour GCs, according to the National Association of Estate Agents, because they feel their properties are safer there during their long absences abroad.)
In America, where they go overboard with most things, a few of the more self-sufficient GCs have declared themselves autonomous entities and tried to secede from local authority control and the tax that goes with it. But despite the gloomy predictions of social polarisation by GC critics such as RICS chief Louis Armstrong, that’s not likely to happen here.
For a start, there is at present only a small number of building applications for new GCs, so their spread in the next few years is likely to be modest. And in many areas local authorities actually welcome GCs because of their high council tax banding, and because the private services their residents provide for themselves lessen the burden on the authorities’ funds. What’s more, only last January Home Secretary David Blunkett sang the praises of GCs, ‘where people contribute to the security of law and order in the area in which they live and to the quality of the environment.’ Speaking at a local government conference, his aim was to encourage councils to follow the private GC model in their future housing plans.
I should add that there’s an odd thing about living in a GC which no one seems to mention: the way it alters your entire perception of ‘security’. For most of my life I’ve lived in homes where anyone could walk unimpeded up to your front door, and it never worried me at all. But recently, when our gates were out of order and we had to keep them open overnight, I felt incredibly vulnerable at the thought that our home was open to the street. That didn’t feel ‘safe’ anymore. And it wasn’t just me. Our burly and blustering male neighbour told me the following morning that he had ‘felt edgy all night’ and could hardly sleep.
This is not a good thing. But I guess it’s the price you have to pay to keep the Jehovah’s Witnesses away.