Reformism in local government has a Faustian history, often involving shady deals, compromised principles and unexpected outcomes as much as successful attempts to establish social justice in cities. Play your cards right and you can, like Herbert Morrison’s London county council, succeed as a paragon of moderate municipal socialist virtue. But if your ambitions outweigh the odds stacked against you, you’re more likely to be remembered like T Dan Smith or Derek Hatton, where the failed nature of the pact is remembered better than the houses, flats and roads that were the other results. It is always a question of degree – whether you can drag what you want out of greedy developers, cost-cutting builders, recalcitrant central government and other forces usually hostile to local democracy.
The only Faustian project worthy of the name in the UK in the last couple of decades has been Ken Livingstone’s London, one of whose unexpected legacies is now being fully realised – the incarnation of social segregation in one building, where instead of council housing, we have mostly private towers and estates whose mandatory percentage of “affordable housing” is reached by separate backdoor entrances, now being dubbed “poor doors”. Ironically enough, this spatial segregation is the direct consequence of the small, piecemeal attempt made in the 2000s to make London more egalitarian.
Like many problems of this ilk, the policy was dictated by necessity, with a garnishing of ideology on top. Livingstone would most probably have preferred the Greater London authority to have built housing directly, as the Greater London council once did, but the possibility that the Treasury would tolerate such a thing was always remote. So instead, developers – itching to build, as the City’s role as a dodgier adjunct to Wall Street kept the money coming in – were obliged to build “affordable” housing as part of the often labyrinthine Section 106 agreements that they had to sign in order to get planning permission. In essence, this was an attempt to have a social housing programme without having a social housing programme. The “affordable” parts of the housing were often handled by the institutions that were still able to build flats and houses for people on the council waiting list, the housing associations, and in theory, Livingstone would be able to create a leftwing spin on “trickle-down economics”, making sure there was a direct redistribution of profits into housing for Londoners.
That’s the “necessity” part – the ideology was derived ostensibly from the early postwar years, and Nye Bevan’s promise that council housing would be for doctors as much as miners, with no segregated communities or one-class estates – private or public. It also emerged out of the notion of “social exclusion”, when the idea of “poverty” was supplanted as an explanation for endemic joblessness and low horizons in certain areas, in favour of the implication that those living in large housing estates just didn’t mix enough – a rather cheeky claim, given that these are often the most multicultural parts of cities, far more so than the middle class districts where the sociologists coining the phrase tended to live. To build first for those in need, to those on a waiting list, would only create “ghettos”, apparently.
What has occurred is a warped parody of this idea. The percentages are always manipulated and pushed back – not only is the definition of “affordable” now way above what anyone on the council list could possibly afford, even this not-particularly-affordable housing is bitterly resisted by developers. The poor doors come out of the need to maintain the irrational, snobbish dream of exclusivity that property developers have always played upon to sell their product – again, a totally predictable outcome, although they are a slight misnomer, given how little of the “affordable” housing actually goes to the poor.
The idea of “mixed communities” and “mixed tenure” was always faintly patronising, given that it never went the other way – it was always the Elephant and Castle that needed lawyers, not Hampstead that needed shelf-stackers. The “mix”, even when it happened, was a mix of the mutually hostile – search for the Greenwich Millennium Village online, to find a host of complaints by rich residents at the fact that sundry “chavs” and “scum” have ended up residing in their stunning luxury living solution.
What it was really about was another mix – a tangle of principles and pragmatism, of making spurious virtues out of necessity. Regardless, the Faustian pact has failed, fewer social homes have been built than at any time since the 1920s, and developers have turned out to be smarter than councillors after all. That’s why housing needs to be taken out of their hands.
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