I consider the Observer a source of light in these dark times, but I am fed up about a piece they carried at the weekend which began by describing a housing development in Waltham Forest. In fact, it is not only a housing development, though you wouldn’t know that from reading the piece, which is one of the annoying things about it. The most annoying thing, however, is its damaging perpetuation of one of the most misleading threads of the liberal-left media’s populist narrative about housing in London – misplaced and simplistic outrage about so-called “poor doors”.
“Poor doors” is the pejorative nickname for entrances leading to the cheaper or “affordable” homes within mixed-tenure housing blocks that are separate from and more prosaic than those giving access to the blocks’ more expensive and posher market-priced homes. The provision of “poor doors” is denounced as the imposition of “segregation” and even a form of “apartheid” quite literally built in to projects of this kind, with developers, politicians and architects portrayed as deliberately and disgracefully enabling and indulging the contempt of “the rich” for “the poor”.
The reality is less clear-cut. “Poor doors” are more fully understood as a manifestation of pragmatic and often uncomfortable compromises made in order to meet at least some of the huge demand for decent accommodation among Londoners with low and middle incomes incomes: trade-offs without which there would even less such housing available. They are a manifestation of London’s more cock-eyed and byzantine housing finance maths and a symptom of its housing crisis rather than evidence of wickedness by bad people.
The Waltham Forest scheme in question is the redevelopment of a site in Walthamstow where until recently there was a public library. The Labour-led council, one of the capital’s more imaginative in facilitating new housing supply, decided in 2018 that the now ex-library, which stood on Wood Street at the corner with Forest Road, would be closed and the site sold to help pay for a new library within a new housing and commercial development nearby and to revamp another one elsewhere in the borough.
Eventually, the council decided to develop the old library site itself. It commissioned architects Haworth Tompkins to come up with a design for a new building to provide new housing and a “families and homes hub“, where Waltham Forest residents can get face-to-face help with the council’s families and homes teams. The council wanted half of the new homes to be “affordable”, that rather slippery umbrella term for dwellings for rent or part-ownership at prices below market levels.
How could those things be paid for by a London local authority which, like so many, is not exactly loaded with spare cash? The financing is helped by the fact that the council owns the land (the cost of purchasing land is a huge and inflationary component in London property development of every kind). But building new things in the capital, even in the relatively cheap outer boroughs, is still very expensive, especially when you factor in the cost of having to knock something else down first.
To make the library site project financially workable, the council took the cross-subsidy approach to development finance, which has long been commonplace in London and elsewhere. Such outcomes usually emerge from negotiations between boroughs, commercial developers and sometimes the Mayor, with the delivery of “affordable” homes and other community benefits, such as street improvements or a new school, being required as a condition for granting planning consent. In this case, a council is itself the developer, but the number crunch equation is the same.
Put at its very simplest, the money to pay for the bits of a development that won’t produce a profit is found by also including in it some bits that will. That basically means that the cost of building the hub and the “affordable” homes at the old library site will be covered as far as possible by the sale of other homes in the same new building at full market prices – and the higher that market price the better, because the more profit there is likely to be from selling those homes, the more “affordable” homes can be included or the more “affordable” they can be.
Put another way, what the Protest Left nowadays unfailingly call “luxury flats” even if they aren’t very luxurious actually pay for the lower cost housing for people on low and middle incomes and other community benefits, like Waltham Forest’s proposed families and homes hub. That is what puts the “subsidy” into “cross-subsidy”. That is how it works.
Some might not like the idea of anyone, let alone a Labour council, building and selling “luxury flats” in London at all when there is so much need for social and other forms of “affordable home”. But without them in this case the new Waltham Forest service hub and those new “affordable” homes on the old Wood Street library site would probably not be on the drawing board.
The cross-subsidy model has many shortcomings (a point on which all interested parties tend to agree), including the perhaps disagreeable fact that the bigger, grander and more exclusive the market homes, the greater the scope for the “affordable” kind being secured as a by-product – the two things work in concert, not – as the Protest Left rhetoric echo chamber has it – in conflict. The entire edifice depends on continuously rising market prices. Think of it as a form of local taxation, collected by means of Section 106 agreements.
There are also particular design and management implications when the different sorts of housing are all contained within the same mixed-tenure building. It is the way these are dealt with that can result in so-called “poor doors” and feeds the “segregation” narrative that too-easily excites too many people in the media, politics and even academia, generating a lot more heat than light.
The genesis of the Observer article was an account of a private meeting to brief members of the council’s planning committee about the planning application (which can be seen on the council’s website). A story then appeared in a local paper headlined “Walthamstow development to separate rich and poor“. It began: “The design for an 11-storey tower on a former library site plans to segregate rich and poor tenants to avoid lowering the value of market-rate flats”.
Outrage! Soon the story was being recycled and followed-up and Walthamstow Labour MP Stella Creasy was denouncing the architects on Twitter, perhaps unaware at the time that they were working for her own local authority. The Architects’ Journal reported Haworth Tompkins defending their work. But when the “story” reached the Observer this weekend, the term “social apartheid” was flying around. “Developers of mixed housing schemes are increasingly building segregated floors and blocks for low-income families to boost the value of the open market properties,” it began, echoing the original rendition for a wider, global audience.
Where shall we begin? There is the very basic point that the lower-cost homes are not “segregated” purely and simply to “boost the value of the open market properties” so that someone mean and nasty (in this case a cash-strapped council) can get richer but because the provision of the “affordable” homes depends on the market properties being there and being sold.
Architect Adrian Miles raised another issue. He described the Observer piece as “error-strewn” and said its first mistake was to “imply that this is ‘increasing’ rather than baked in since mixed tenure developments started. However much I support the aspiration of completely homogenous mixed tenure development there are underlying factors completely unexamined,” he wrote. Very true.
Miles moved on to the question of service charges. These are levied on residents of multi-dwelling blocks separately from their rents or mortgages to pay for the maintenance and general upkeep of the building, including areas of it they share with other people. Sometimes, in mixed-tenure blocks there are areas only some of the residents can share, such as the respective halls beyond “poor doors” and the other kind (“rich doors”?).
Some prime mixed-tenure developments in London have private swimming pools or gyms in the full market rate parts (the Waltham Forest ones won’t be like that, by the way). “Segregation” outrage is periodically aimed at the exclusion of social housing residents from such plush amenities, but the awkward reality is twofold: one, those amenities enable higher asking prices to be obtained for the expensive flats, creating more scope for affordable housing to be negotiated and derived; two, the service charges residents of the “affordable” homes would have to pay in order to use those amenities would be more than most can afford.
Furthermore, the “affordable” housing is often run for its owner by a housing association, whose job is easier if the dwellings they are responsible for are separate from the rest. And they don’t want the potential tenants or part-owners they exist to serve to be priced out of those properties by having to cough up for facilities they can live better without.
The Observer article did not explain any of these things, making it just the latest in a long stream of them with exactly the same failings ever since the long-standing existence of “poor doors” in Britain was discovered by the Guardian way back in 2014. They point. They condemn. They abhor. Everyone shouts “boo” and carries on as before.
True, Waltham Forest’s plans for the old library site have provided a different dimension to the “segregation” theme. As the council points out, everyone who lives in the development, if and when it is constructed, will enter the building from the street through the same door. The objection to these plans, as voiced by planning committee member Marie Pye, is that the 11-storey building would have “poor floors”, with the “affordable” and market homes on different storeys reached by separate lifts.
The account of the briefing that reached the local paper – the beginning of the development plans being “a story” – in fact contained a very frank, if rather technical, explanation of why the tenure mix proposed is as it is, attributed to a council officer. Not separating out the different tenure-types would “add additional risk in terms of marketability” the officer reportedly said. “The scheme has challenging viability because we are delivering a new hub, as well as 50 per cent affordable homes… (which) the market units are helping subsidise. “We have made a tenure-blind residential entrance but felt that we had to de-risk the scheme and have separate cores.”
This touches on another unhappy truth – the sorts of people who might be willing and able to pay the price that will be asked for the market flats might be more likely to pay it if they know they will be separated from the “affordable” residents within the building. Sometimes with such schemes, we see the “segregation” included in marketing materials (if the “affordable” homes are mentioned at all), albeit with subtler language, much as estate agents everywhere highlight pleasant parks, good local schools and bicycle lanes in order to attract the affluent.
This is, of course, disagreeable to anyone who recoils from class snobbery and that pernicious fear and loathing of “the other” in the form of “the lower orders”, social housing dwellers, “chavs” and all the rest of it. But such disapproval, however righteous, does not challenge the council officer’s judgement that were “segregation” not integral to the building’s design, the project’s finances might be put at risk. For London boroughs, this is not a good time for risks with finance, especially if delivering affordable homes is at stake.
The scheme itself envisages 67 dwellings, of which 32 – almost 50% – will be “affordable” or otherwise below market prices. Of these, 18 will be for “affordable rent” (another nebulous term, but please, not today) and 14 “intermediate” (probably shared ownership). Three of the affordable rent homes will be three-bedroom flats and the rest of the “affordable” will be one or two-beds. The different types of “affordable” will co-exist at the same levels: three for rent and two intermediate on the first floor; five for rent and three intermediate on the second, third and fourth. On the fifth floor, there will three three intermediate and five market flats, and from the sixth up it will be market all the way.
Sadiq Khan has always said he is against “poor doors” on social integration grounds and his new London Plan puts this objection into effect. But this will close off one route to affordable homes coming through the planning system. And, actually, what’s it like living behind a “poor door” or on a “poor floor” anyway? Is it as hateful and divisive as we are told?
The standard commentary template depicts scenarios of humiliation, with the exclusion and marginalisation of “the poor” daily thrown in their faces by “the rich” who live beside them and yet pointedly apart. But is that necessarily how it is? Does simultaneous physical proximity to and social distance from people who are richer than you make your relative poverty more difficult for you to bear? Would living in a damp, cold, old flat well away from richer people be better? Which circumstance would be the more segregationist?
Perhaps a lot depends on the individual. Or, for that matter, the exact configuration of the mixed-tenure block. The stock soft target for “poor doors” vituperation is the Nine Elms development by the Thames, which provides easy photo-ops to feed the liberal outrage market. And some such schemes have been avoidable and are awful. But not all.
One of my sons, his partner and their (utterly adorable) daughter live a shared-ownership flat in a mixed-tenure development in Bow. When I go to visit them, I have to remind myself that I enter their block via a “poor door”. They don’t have a lot of space and they would love to have a house with a garden one day. But for now they have a balcony that looks out over a canal and provides a view of Zaha Hadid’s aquatics centre at the Olympic Park, which is just a ten-minute walk away.
They are perfectly aware that wealthier people live in a different part of the block and enter it through a different door with a fancier corridor leading to the lifts, but as far as I can tell they couldn’t care less. Denunciations of “poor doors” (or “poor floors”) often betray rather idealised constructions of “integrated, mixed communities” projected onto abstract lived scenarios to which a few unhappy “local” voices provide patinas of authenticity. “Poor doors” horror stories do not acknowledge the existence of people like my son.
What’s ultimately so frustrating about the Observer article and the years and years of similar stuff that has gone before it is the amazing lack of curiosity betrayed. I don’t want to be unkind to individual writers: sometimes reporters have these “stories” dumped on their plates and later shaped by editors “following up” what they’ve read or heard elsewhere and who are every bit as captured by the bovine groupthink of uncomprehending auto-disapproval.
And yet, there are hundreds of people all over this city, in all parts of the housing sector, who could explain, if asked, the array of often competing considerations that have to be weighed and balanced by London councils in the unequal struggle to make housing supply in London meet London’s housing need, and a load of other needs besides. Being outraged about “poor doors” is easy, but it’s much, much harder to house “the poor”.
OnLondon.co.uk provides in-depth coverage of the UK capital’s politics, development and culture. It depends greatly on donations from readers. Give £5 a month or £50 a year and you will receive the On London Extra Thursday email, which rounds up London news, views and information from a wide range of sources, plus special offers and free access to events. Click here to donate directly or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for bank account details.