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“Poor doors” show why we need to get councils building again

We must end the virtual monopoly that private developers have on building affordable homes

We must end the virtual monopoly that private developers have on building affordable homes.
Canary Wharf rises above an area of council housing in Limehouse. Photograph: Getty Images.

The rules are clear: the poor are allowed to live close to the rich, but must use a separate entrance. They can share buildings, but are barred from mixing socially. They live together, but on every other measure they are light years apart. The scene comes straight out of Downton Abbey or a Dickens novel, reeking of inequality, anachronism and humiliation. It is, though, the stark reality of 21st Century London.

The increasing use of so-called "poor doors", as reported by the Guardian at the weekend, is disturbing – but it is just one symptom of a housing emergency that continues to afflict ordinary Londoners. It is quite clear that any system that results in this kind of discrimination is not working. Londoners should not be told that they live can in the capital’s new developments but only as second-rate citizens of their own city.

The Mayor should use the planning system to phase out the "poor door" trend – a practice that has no place in a global city that thrives on its diversity and mixed communities. But let’s not lose sight of the real cause of the problem: a deep housing crisis that dominates life in the capital. The city needs 800,000 new homes by 2021, while over 250,000 London households are already living in overcrowded conditions. A lack of supply means soaring house prices - up 25 per cent in the last year - and rapidly-rising rents are pricing ordinary Londoners out of many areas of the capital, with the result of increased segregation within the city and, now, even within buildings.

Some might ask if having a separate entrance for lower income residents in a development really matters. I believe it does matter when we think about the kind of city we want to live in. Do we want a divided city where the rich and the poor are kept separate – a city in which central London becomes a lifeless millionaire’s playground, while large parts of outer London effectively become ghettos of the poor? Or do we want a vibrant, dynamic world city in which people from all walks of life live, work and play side-by-side, thriving off each other and together contributing to a great global success story? For most Londoners the answer is clear – but it is not one that is being put into action.

Instead, in place of the old "No Irish, no blacks, no dogs" signs that greeted my father when he landed in this city in 1956, some developers are now erecting signs that, in effect, say "No cleaners, no nurses, no teachers". That is the underlying message of building designs that go to great lengths to keep everyone but the richest away from these luxury developments. Affordable homes may be included in the architect’s plans, as they legally have to be, but their eventual inhabitants are increasingly being told that they should be unseen and unheard.

The problem is not limited to London. A similar practice exists in New York, where new developments on the Upper West Side include separate entrances for different groups of residents. The Mayor, recently-elected Bill de Blasio, has rightly baulked at the idea, and made moves to ban the practice. Yet the affordable housing system in New York rests on a tax subsidy to developers who build affordable homes, whereas in the UK developers are only granted planning permission at the outset if they provide affordable housing as part of the development. This process is often heavily negotiated with local authorities and it is at this point - where politicians and planners have the leverage - that we should draw up and rigorously enforce a set of planning guidelines that emphasises shared points of entry and equal access to amenities.  

Those guidelines should be formed in conjunction with developers, housing associations and residents’ groups in order to make sure we get this right. We cannot remove developers’ financial incentive to build developments that make them money - but equally we need to make sure that we give local authorities the powers to get the best possible deal for lower income residents.

We must also end the virtual monopoly that private developers have on building affordable homes. "Poor doors" are the result of a housing system that depends almost entirely on private house-builders to deliver our affordable housing. If we could unleash local authorities from their artificial borrowing caps and empower housing associations to make better use of their assets, private developers would no longer hold all the cards when it comes to building affordable homes for Londoners.

The result of failing to get London building would not just be a deeper housing crisis but a more deeply divided city. Already we are seeing signs of this, with widespread fears that the capital is becoming a city in which the rich and the rest are increasingly segregated. To allow this to happen within individual buildings is simply adding insult to inequality.