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.