Residential segregation shouldn’t come as a surprise: in our developer-led housing system, it’s endemic

Oh wow, more luxury flats! Image: Getty.

A London housing development dividing children’s play areas based on their tenure has been the source of widespread outrage in recent months. The 149-home Baylis Old School complex in south London was accused of denying children from social housing units access to a playground used by those from market-rate flats.

Politicians from across the spectrum, including Jeremy Corbyn, Sadiq Khan and James Brokenshire, all expressed moral indignation – putting pressure on the developer, Henley Homes, to remedy the situation. Amid heart wrenching stories of children from the same primary school being unable to play together, the local council agreed to take down the dividing wall.

As alarming as this individual case was – separating innocent children along class lines – it’s far from an exception. Residential segregation has been an outcome of attempts to produce so-called “affordable” housing from market-rate housing in expensive cities across the world.

A recently approved tower in Vancouver’s West End has been slated for having separate entrances for market and social housing residents, and attempts to separate children’s play areas. Until mayor De Blasio’s clampdown, New York was in the spotlight over the likes of the Lincoln Square tower, where private tenants enjoyed uninterrupted river views and facilities including a pool, a movie theatre and a bowling alley – while low-income residents only had access to a bike storage closet, unfinished laundry room and tiny common space.

Such disparities are only amplified when – rather than aiming at local residents most in need – developers look to an international market of property speculators. Appealing to vast amounts of investment pouring in from around the world, developers are increasingly throwing in amenities like swimming pools, concierges and cinemas. Whilst the private units attracting many millions are positioned to enjoy the best city views and are adorned with a myriad of additional luxuries, any “affordable” units that the developers haven’t managed to avoid constructing are going to look very different.

The situation in the UK is, however, particularly acute. Forty years ago, local authorities were responsible for over 40 per cent of house building – which has now dropped to below 2 per cent, and the construction of social housing has reduced by 80 per cent over the past decade alone. As the role of government in directly producing low income housing has drastically diminished, private developers now have a near monopoly in generating it – technically obliged by planning gain to include a certain proportion of social or affordable units in their schemes.

In other words, the provision of a fundamental social good is now squarely in the hands of organisations with no incentive to foster an equal community, and whose mission is to cut costs and maximise profit wherever possible. To these firms, affordable housing provision – and everything that goes along with it – is simply an inconvenience: at best, a box ticking exercise.

Blindly following the “build, build, build” mantra, toothless local authorities constantly allow developers to skimp on affordable housing quotas and flout planning policies. The dull and compartmentalised open spaces linked to these developments – playgrounds included – resemble what they really are: the outcome of a haggling process in which local authorities are subservient.

It should come as no surprise, then, that playgrounds in new housing developments are divided. Residential segregation is a physical manifestation of the unequal urban citizenship perpetuated by our market-led housing system. Rather than appealing to the good nature of developers, we need to stop seeing affordable housing as a side-product of private gain, and see it as a human right.

Time White is a researcher at LSE Cities at the London School of Economics.


Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.


Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.


The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.

The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.