Canary Wharf rises above an area of council housing in Limehouse. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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

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. 

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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