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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To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”