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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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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