Women's issues could decide this Saturday's Delhi elections

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks with Kiran Bedia, the BJP's candidate to be Delhi's chief minister, on Tuesday. Image: AFP/Getty.

Delhi is hardly a model city when it comes to sex ratio. Its population includes as few as 868 women for every 1000 men, and under 45 per cent of its registered voters are women.

Nonetheless, the Indian capital still has more than 7.8m female citizens. And with elections to the city’s legislature due on 7 February, the “woman issue” seems to be rearing its head – perhaps not for the first time, but surely in more certain and assertive terms than it has before. 

Partly this is because women’s safety, specifically sexual safety, has become a big issue in the wake of the protests following the gang rape of a student in Delhi in December 2012. The three main parties competing – Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Congress, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – have all pledged to make safety for the city’s women their priority.

BJP has even gone on to publish a 25 point programme for women’s safety, which includes better street lighting and distribution of “safety kits” to women. It’s also fielding a Kiran Bedi – the first woman officer to join the Indian Police Service in 1972, who’s since become known as the “Iron Woman” – as its chief ministerial candidate. Meanwhile, Nupur Sharma, a 30 year old graduate of the London School of Economics, is the challenger in the seat currently held by the AAP’s chief ministerial candidate Arvind Kejriwal.

All of this was to be expected: in a survey carried out last November, women’s safety emerged as the top issue for voters in Delhi. But the parties’ assumption that they can win women’s votes simply by campaigning on this single issue may land them in trouble. Indeed, in a subsequent survey of the Delhi electorate, conducted in January, inflation took the top slot; women’s safety had fallen down the list.

The reality is that there are other issues which may have a disproportionate effect on the city’s women, not least inflation and employment. This singular approach also fails to take into account the diversity among women living in Delhi. For the large number of migrant women working in the informal sector, the rising cost of living, housing, health and lack of job opportunities may be just as important as, or even more important than, safety.

There is also discontent over how few female candidates are standing – raising questions regarding how far the party’s commitment to gender equality actually goes. There are 70 seats in the Delhi legislative assembly; between them, the three parties are fielding just 19 women candidates. Even if all of these win their seats (unlikely), they’d make up only 27 per cent of Delhi’s legislators.

So, although women’s presence in these elections seems to be more pervasive than before, it’s mostly owing to a few high profile female candidates, rather than an actual increase in the numbers overall. And it’s remarkable that, with so much emphasis on women’s safety, none of the parties have even discussed trying to engage more women in governance.

Women’s safety may move up and down the ranking of issues in the imminent elections, but the parties’ failure to place women on an equal footing with men will not go unnoticed. In the 2014 general elections in India, women voted in large numbers with a 65 turnout, up from 57 per cent in 2009. As demographics and gender dynamics change, the importance of the women’s vote is only going to increase.

If India’s politicians have foresight, they will understand that they can’t take voters for a ride by paying attention to a single issue. Women want more than to be able to walk the streets without the fear of being raped.


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.