This has been a year of noisy neighbours, nosy neighbours and dirty herberts

We base ourselves on the idea that we must peacefully co-exist, said Nikita Khrushchev - clearly a man who had never lingered in Purley where, shortly before Christmas, Sir Bernard Ingham was arrested for allegedly kicking one of his next-door neighbour's three Mercedes cars. The row, the latest in an extended feud, centred on vehicular access.

In the lexicon of neighbours' disputes, the words "vehicular access" - like "party wall", "cupressus leylandii" and "I think there may be something wrong with your chimney" (the veiled warning by Islington eco-snoopers to anyone suspected of throwing logs/Shreddies boxes/old mattresses on a smokeless grate) - guarantee impending hostilities.

Irksome as life may be in war-torn Purley, Bernard is in tune with a combative public mood. This has been the year of the dreadful neighbour. The national addiction to other people's tiffs began in January when the BBC and ITV instituted their own turf squabble, offering competing series on neighbours from hell on the same night. By the end of this dual run, the topic had been covered so exhaustively that barely a vandalised greenhouse, illegal loft conversion, deaf insomniac Black Sabbath devotee or incontinent cat availing itself of next door's petunia border remained absolved from media scrutiny. How dull it was, and what chords it struck.

Come June, Jack Straw was threatening antisocial neighbours with jail and warning that Community Safety Orders would be placed on disruptive families, allowing courts to impose curfews and restraining orders. The move, based on the gospel of Zero Tolerance, would be coupled with the creation of a specific offence of racial harassment.

In a further concession to neighbourly spirit, citizens learnt that they might, one day, acquire the right to roam where they chose, assuming their wish-list did not encompass the Sussex fiefdom of Nicholas Van Hoogstraten, who built a barn across a public footpath and explained the need for this cordon sanitaire: "The ramblers are just a bunch of the dirty mac brigade. The great unwashed. They're disgusting creatures. Would you have a lot of herberts in your garden?"

Though Hoogstraten took a certain amount of flak, the response to this challenge was muted enough to suggest that - from Prestwick to Purley - there was some echo to the view that one's backyard should remain a herbert-free zone. Herberts come in many guises. Romanian gypsies, asylum-seekers in general, European tax harmonisers - all of these became, in the year of the hellish neighbour, emblematic of those who should be forbidden to breach, or tamper with, the British boundary wall.

By December it was clear that the insular faction had not determined, like G K Chesterton, to "love my fellow man and hate my next-door neighbour". Far easier to lump the whole lot together into a general category of undesirables. Even Jack Straw, the evangelist of tranquil co-existence, devised a scheme under which 25 Kosovar asylum-seekers were sent to a hostel in the Chapeltown area of Leeds, cheek-by-jowl with a Serbian community centre. As neighbourly engineering goes, this was like despatching Sir Bernard Ingham to partake of next door's mulled wine and cheese and pineapple on sticks.

And so the year of the bad neighbour drew to a close. There were noisy neighbours (all that piano practice at No 11), nosy neighbours (the Hull man who had John Prescott breathalysed, lest he be legless on Highland Spring), lost and unlamented neighbours (goodbye to care in the community; welcome to the age of indeterminate detention for the mentally ill), and the good neighbours to whom no one ever listens.

Sofiah Baker, who lived next door to Lauren Creed, the five-year-old girl brutalised by her mother's boyfriend, recorded the child's story and told the police of her bruises in July last year. The probation service was not informed. On the night Lauren died, neighbours reported a sound like a bag being thrown down the stairs. So much for communitarianism in inward-looking Britain, where potential tragedies create less official fuss than beanstalk conifers and vehicular access in Purley.

Still, Christmas is here and good neighbourliness remains; battered but extant. Imagine - if the Lord Hoffman problem does not rule out such a prospect - the yuletide vision of Bruce Forsyth and General Pinochet huddled by the Wentworth Estate gas logs, partaking of a cheering glass of Chilean red and a Fortnum & Mason mince pie.

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition