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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Which pairs of capital cities are the closest together?

Vienna, which is quite close to Bratislava, but not quite close enough. Image: Thomas Ledl

It doesn't take long to get from Paris to Brussels. An hour and a half on a comfortable Thalys train will get you there. 

Which raises an intriguing question, if you like that sort of thing: wich capital cities of neighbouring countries are the closest together? And which are the furthest away? 

There are some that one might think would be quite close, which are actually much further part. 

Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, sits on one side of the estuary of the Río de la Plata, while Montevideo, Uruguay's capital lies on the other side. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But at 207km apart, they're not really that close at all. 

Similarly, Singapore – capital of, er, Singapore – always sticks in the mind as 'that bit on the end of the Malaysian sticky-out bit'. But it's actually pretty far away from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. A whole 319km away, in fact:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Thinking of 'countries that cause problems by being close together', you inevitably think of South Korea and North Korea. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And while Pyongyang in the North and Seoul in the South are pretty close together, 181km just isn't going to cut it. 

Time to do some Seoul-searching to find the real answer here.

(Sorry.)

(Okay, not that sorry.)

Another place where countries being close together tends to cause problems is the Middle East. Damascus, the capital of Syria, really isn't that far from Beirut, in Lebanon. Just 76km:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Seeing as Lebanon is currently host to millions of refugees fleeing the horrors of Syria's never-ending civil war and the atrocities of Daesh, or Isis, this is presumably something that authorities in Beirut have given a certain amount of thought to.

Most of the time, finding nearby capitals is a game of searching out which bits of the world have lots of small countries, and then rooting around. So you'd think Central America would be ripe for close-together capital fun. 

And yet the best option is Guatemala and El Salvador – where the imaginatively named Guatemala City is a whole 179km away from the also imaginatively named San Salvador.  

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Another obvious place with lots of small-ish countries is Europe – the site of the pair of capitals that drove me to write this nonsense in the first place. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And in fairness, Vienna and Bratislava do make a pretty good showing of it. Austria's capital sits on the Danube; drift downstream, and you swiftly get to Slovakia's capital. As the crow flies, it's 56km – though as the man swims, it's a little longer. 

There are more surprising entries – particularly if you're willing to bend the rules a little bit. Bahrain and Qatar aren't really adjacent in the traditional sense, as they have no land border, but let's just go with it. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Manama, Bahrain's capital, is 140km away from Doha, the centre of the world's thriving local connecting-flight-industry which moonlights as Qatar's capital. 

Sticking with the maritime theme, Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago is 152km from St George's, Grenada. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Good, but not good enough. 

Castries, the capital of the Carribbean country of St Lucia, is 102km north of Kingstown, the capital of St Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Better, but still not good enough. 

Basseterre, the capital of St Kitts and Nevis, inches ahead at 100km away from St John's, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But, enough teasing: it's time to get down to the big beasts.

If you ask Google Maps to tell you the distance between the capital of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it comes up with a rather suspect 20km. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

A short distance, but considering the only thing separating the two is the River Congo, something's up: Google places the centre of Brazzaville a little north of where it should be, and the centre of Kinshasa many many miles south of where it should be, in some sort of suburb.


So, in true CityMetric style, we turn to train stations. 

Though such transport hubs may not always perfectly mark the centre of a city – just ask London Oxford Airport or London Paddington – in this case it seems about right. 

Kinshasa's main train station is helpfully called 'Gare Centrale', and is almost slap-bang in the middle of the area Google marks as 'Centre Ville'. On the other side of the river, 'Gare de Brazzaville' is in the middle of lots of densely-packed buildings, and is right next to a Basilica, which is always a good sign. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And when marking that distance, you get a more realistic 4.8km. If you want to be really keen, the ferry between them travels 3.99km, and the closest point I could find between actual buildings was 1.74km, though admittedly that's in a more suburban area. 

Pretty close, though. 

But! I can hear the inevitable cries clamouring for an end to this. So, time to give the people what they want. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you ask Google Maps to tell you how far away the Holy See, capital of the Vatican, is from Rome, capital of Rome, it says 3.5km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you set the centre of Rome to be the Palatine Hill, the ancient marking point for roads leading out of Rome, that narrows to 2.6km.

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Fiddle a bit and put the centre of the Vatican as, well, the middle bit of the roughly-circular Vatican, that opens up a smidge to 2.75km.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Mark the centre of point of the Vatican as the approximate location of St Peter's Tomb within St Peter's Basilica, which is after all the main reason the Vatican is a thing and not just a quirky suburb of Rome, and 2.67km is your answer. 

Though obviously in practice Rome and the Vatican are as far away as one single step over the railings at the entrance of St Peter's Square, which fairly blatantly makes them the closest capital cities in the world. 

But that would have been a very boring thing to come out and say at the start. 

Oh, and if you hadn't worked it out already, the longest distance between a capital city and the capital of a country it shares a land border with is 6,395km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

I know it's tough for you, Vladimir and Kim. Long-distance relationships are a real struggle sometimes.

I can't make a pun work on either Moscow or Pyongyang here, but readers' submissions more than welcome. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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