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What Price Do You Put on a Community?

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The death of a community is a cost not easily counted. Shirley, a pensioner from the village of Trelewis in South Wales, told me last week of the day in the early 1990s when the Coal Board finally cleared the pit machinery at the Deep Navigation colliery.

"The whole village was out on that mountain the day they blew the klaxon horn and the pithead was blown up," she said. "Then it just went very quiet. The jobs went and the shops closed."

Shirley doesn't romanticise about the good old days of King Coal. The village was permanently filthy from coal dust; the women blocked the streets to campaign against the lorries that rushed through the narrow streets scattering pit spoil everywhere.

"I didn't care when the pits went - I used to pray to God every day for my husband to come home safely," she said. "You never knew when there would be an accident." But she knew that when the mines went she lost much more than her fear.

Shirley's story had a happier ending than many. The spoil heaps and coal dust of Deep Navigation have now given way to a remarkable country park, with dippers nesting where once nothing could live. But, despite local people's best efforts to attract work to the area through facilities such as Wales's largest climbing wall, there are few jobs.

The regeneration of the Taff Bargoed valley has taken the best part of 20 years, and is not complete. Repurposing a place is expensive. Abandoning it can be even more costly, with an unseen price in terms of ruptured relationships, disrupted education and mental stress.

We're a long way from fully understanding the importance of place to wellbeing. We're beginning to do so with the natural world through the concept of ecosystem services - the way nature provides us with materials, regulates our environment, supports life and provides a setting for culture. But what about the cultural and psychological value of a pit village or a council estate?

Those who dream up grand plans and impose them over people's heads like to think of themselves as regenerators and placemakers. But they often fail to appreciate the value of place as a setting for everyday life, the sense of home people create in adversity. A recent study for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that such a sense of belonging was "frequently rooted and constructed in the realm of the often mundane and everyday interactions between people in localised settings".

Yet the grand planners assign no value to this sense of belonging. Quite the reverse: it's seen as a sign of stroppiness and ignorance. Take the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates in west London, where local people want to take over their homes in the face of a council-inspired plan to demolish them to make way for the shiny redevelopment of Earl's Court.

As residents have found - including one leaseholder who had been recruited to support the redevelopment plans - the shiny schemes turn out to be less sparkling when exposed to the light.

As Dave Hill explains in his blog for the Guardian, the conditional land sale agreement signed by Hammersmith and Fulham Council is far from a guarantee of new and better homes for local people. While the council says it is 'completely confident' that its deal with developers CapCo will create new homes and jobs, it also admits the agreement is an 'emerging document' which is far from finalised.

Grand planners have a long and frequently shameful history of uprooting people while promising jam tomorrow. Their schemes never factor in the loss of a community or the value of friendships, support networks and emotional ties that exist in a place. Those losses don't appear on their balance sheets, but must be borne in silence by the supposed beneficiaries.

No wonder people so often would rather fight the planners and stay where they are. Change happens and is sometimes unavoidable; but if we accounted more honestly for the effects of change we might start learning how to manage it better.

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