Is it time for London to abandon the dream of mixed communities?

An east London housing estate. Image: Getty.

Writing back in 1945, Nye Bevan, minister for health and housing in the Atlee government, laid out his vision for the post war reconstruction of housing:

“We should try to introduce in our modern villages and towns what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street. I believe that is essential for the full life of citizen... to see the living tapestry of a mixed community.”

A commitment to mixed communities remains an important principle of British housing to this day – and the troubled history of mono-tenure housing estates only deepened the commitment.  So government policy requires developers, except in exceptional circumstances, to provide affordable housing as part of market developments, through negotiated Section 106 agreements.  

But it is no secret that the cost of developing in central London is putting huge pressure on this framework. As a new Centre for London report on affordable housing sets out, for the cost of providing one affordable unit in central London, you could provide five or more in cheaper areas.

Is it time, then, to concentrate on building affordable housing in less expensive part of London and give up on the Bevanite ideal of butchers and doctors, or in today's terms perhaps, estate agents and uber drivers, living next to each other?

Yes and no.  

Though successive mayors have made affordable housing a priority, the actual supply of the precious stuff has declined over the last decade: Centre for London’s report charts that, in 2004-5, 35 per cent of additional housing was sub-market; but by 2014/15 that had fallen to 25 per cent. It’s vital that we build more, and, though we need a variety of solutions, focusing construction on cheaper areas is an obvious way of increasing supply.

Central and outer London boroughs, moreover, are well matched; the former have money, and the latter relatively cheap land. Coming to an agreement can be difficult, but it should not be impossible. Host boroughs are, reasonably, wary of having vulnerable low income residents ‘dumped’ on them.  Yet there could be big wins not just for paying boroughs but host boroughs too: development funding can help pay for badly needed infrastructure and unlock market development, as well as providing more affordable housing for their residents.


Refocusing affordable housing funds to build more homes in cheaper areas does not mean giving up on principles of mixed communities. In fact, central London already has a higher supply of social housing than outer parts; more than a third of housing in inner London is social housing compared to only 18 per cent in outer London. Central London boroughs still want to increase local supply of affordable homes – especially for families that have local connections. And many want to boost the supply of intermediate tenures, a way of addressing the hollowing out of middle income groups. But the real opportunity lies in building mixed communities in outer London.

Against this background, there is a strong case for a pan London approach to affordable housing. And the good news is, after years in which every borough worked more or less on its own and proposal for collaboration between central and outer boroughs were viewed with deep suspicion, boroughs across London are showing a new willingness to work together on a range of services from adult social care to back-end office functions.

But we need more to encourage collaborations on affordable housing. Our report argues that central government should make cross-borough collaboration easy by removing restrictions on funding that discourage it, while the mayor of London should play a role in brokering and incentivising collaborations.

Most of all, boroughs should look for opportunities to work more closely together, exploring how they can get the best deal for their residents, especially those on housing waiting lists, and build the affordable homes our city so desperately needs.

Ben Rogers is the director of the Centre for London. You read the think tank's full report here.

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The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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