London is ageing. How can the city’s form and services keep up?

More of this. Image: Getty.

Walk round parts of central London and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a city of young people. This blind spot extends to the unthinking way those without mobility impediments get around the stairs, tube escalators, barriers, broken paving slabs and high pavements that crowd our streets.

Yet for the 1.2 million Londoners with a disability, these streets are not a helpful pathway but an obstacle course that may be simply impossible to traverse. Despite the Mayor’s £200m extra investment to make the transport network more accessible, by 2022 still only 40 per cent of Underground stations will be step-free. The next time you are on the Tube, try planning your journey using only the step-free stations and you’ll understand the extra time and trouble this one aspect of a city, designed without equal use in mind, can cause.

It is not only those personally affected by a disability who are impeded. It’s also the hundreds of thousands of Londoners who provide unpaid care for their loved ones who may be too old, young, or unwell. As I set out in my report Who Cares?, these Londoners are a silent public service, and ever more of us are set to join their ranks in the coming years.

But many carers still find themselves disconnected from normal life. While looking after a loved one can bring great purpose to life, it is also a heavy burden to bear because the design of our city’s streets, homes and amenities is ignorant of alternative needs.

Despite the remorseless logic of an aging population with more complex medical conditions, and a threadbare social security net, 50 per cent of people who currently do not have a caring responsibility think it unlikely they ever will have one. As a city, we are not ready for the fact that many more people will find they have to look after someone. This is reflected in our urban planning, too.

We are currently marking Carers Week 2019, focusing this year on “connecting carers”. As any carer will tell you, going out with their charge can be a daunting process. Too often it is easier to stay in and avoid the rush and risk of bumps and trips, the pavements too narrow for a wheelchair, and the buildings that turn out to be inaccessible.

Yet our homes and housing policies are part of the problem too. Though new builds should meet certain accessibility standards, London has seen an explosion of small homes thanks to Permitted Development Rights, which allow office-to-residential conversions to dodge design standards. That is not to mention the state of our aging private and social housing stock. All in, we have too few suitable homes for the growing numbers of Londoners who need adaptations to keep living independently.

Let us not forget, two years on from the Grenfell Tower fire, that residents with mobility issues were living in flats high up in that block without an easy way to escape. At best, good urban design helps us live healthily despite old age or ill health. At its worst, the consequences for individuals are dire.

There are some signs that the picture is changing. Transport for London (TfL) is investing £2.3bn in the next five years in a world-leading programme to make our streets navigable for all. The mayor of London’s Health Inequality Strategy sets out new targets for accessible homes, followed up with tougher planning guidance in the New London Plan. And our efforts to become a dementia friendly city will pay dividends for many more Londoners than just those with dementia.

It cannot be right that an increasing proportion of London’s residents find themselves cut off. While planning for old age and disability may produce less exciting artists’ renderings than glassy new high-rises, it will make a more significant contribution to London’s future.

For too long, we have taken a “make do and mend” approach to how our cities are shaped to meet their citizens’ needs, leaving the NHS and individuals to pick up the pieces. Now, with the right political leadership from City Hall we have a chance to fix this. Changing demographics leave us with no other option.

Dr Onkar Sahota is a member of the London Assembly for Ealing & Hillingdon, a practicing GP in West London, and Labour’s London Assembly Health Spokesperson. He tweets as @DrOnkarSahota.


Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.

So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.