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.


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.