Marvin Rees: Cities can help the left develop an inclusive politics of migration

Marvin Rees, speaking at an anti-Brexit rally in Bristol, 2016. Image: Getty.

Migration is one of the defining political issues of our time, and all around the globe national politicians are seemingly unable to meet the challenge. Their collective failure requires us to ask challenging questions about the nature of identity in the 21st century. In Open and Ethical, a new Fabian Society report, I argue these questions will lead us to focus on cities as the building blocks for a new politics which is open to newcomers without sacrificing community and solidarity.

Today there are more than 1 billion migrants in the world. Much of this movement is voluntary, but the scale of forced migration has also increased exponentially in recent years. There are currently around 22.5 million refugees and another 40.3 million internally displaced people worldwide – more than at any time since the second world war.

Onto this stage has stepped a generation of demagogues, from Trump to Farage to Le Pen to Salvini. All have deliberately stoked resentment against migrants with electoral success. We are not facing a global political crisis on migration simply because of a few ‘bad apple’ politicians. The deeper problem here is about the inability of national narratives to generate the necessary solidarity to embrace diversity in a time of economic uncertainty.

But I fear that if we only contest notions of collective identity at the national level that we will be waiting a long time for any meaningful success.

As the first elected European city mayor of African descent, migration is hardly an issue that I can avoid. However, I’m also a Bristol boy, and I wake up every day proud to have the opportunity to serve the place I call home. Bristol has a chequered history when it comes to race and migration, with much of the city’s wealth being generated through the transatlantic slave trade. That legacy remains a scar on the city’s conscience, but today we are a place that has diversity right at its heart. As events such as St Paul’s carnival or the Grand Iftar demonstrate, Bristol is the place it is today because of its diversity.

When I talk to my fellow mayors in the UK, I can see that Bristol is not a unique case. Every city will have its issues and its tensions, but on the whole it seems that there is a meaningful sense of urban civic identity which is broad enough to contain diversity and strong enough to withstand the siren calls of scapegoating and division. This could drive the left’s thinking on how to build an inclusive politics on migration. Such a politics could also deliver lessons that can be applied across the country, creating a platform of strong local and regional identities on which to build a meaningful national narrative.

If we want to support the development of strong and inclusive local identities, we need to empower local leaders by giving them the tools they need. We should learn lessons from the new metro mayor positions and identify where and how new power can be devolved from the national to the local level. The Labour party should lead the way on this agenda and set out a bold plan in its next general election manifesto.

Last October, Bristol was proud to host the third annual summit of the global parliament of mayors. One of the key items on the agenda was migration and how cities can take the lead in implementing the UN global compacts on migration and refugees. It is a scandal that these compacts, which will rely on local leadership to be implemented, have been almost exclusively negotiated by national leaders. Those on the left need to find ways to support and enhance the role of cities at the international level if we want to see progress globally on the treatment of migrants and refugees. The global compacts give us a great opportunity to do just that.

It can be easy watching the news to become despondent about the state of politics on the issue of migration. But if we forge a politics of inclusion at the city level, we will discover the language, the ideas and the leadership needed to change our country and our world.

Marvin Rees is the Labour mayor of Bristol.


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.