‘Poor floors’: anger over new plans to segregate tower block residents

London mayor to rule on ‘social apartheid’ of separate lifts, floors and blocks for low-income tenants

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.

Modern housing developments are often segregated by tenure, with flats let at affordable rents, shared ownership homes and open market properties given separate, fob-protected floors or separate blocks. Facilities including courtyards, communal lounges and roof gardens are also sometimes divided along the same lines. However developers in the capital will soon face rules requiring schemes to be more integrated.

Mayor Sadiq Khan’s new London Plan - which is due to be formally adopted within two weeks - states that developments should “maximise tenure integration” and recreation space should “not be segregated by tenure”. The plan aims to be a guide for borough planning committees and determines when the mayor will intervene.

A spokesman for Khan said: “The mayor wishes to see mixed developments, preferably where affordable housing is spread throughout new developments rather than concentrated in separate blocks and floors.”

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s plan says developments should maximise integration. Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

Anger is growing among campaigners and planning experts about the routine approval of segregated developments, which they say create a form of “social apartheid”, and leave a damaging legacy of social stigma.

In north-east London, Waltham Forest council is planning a block on the site of a former library, with separate lifts and stairs to the affordable flats. Labour councillor Marie Pye, who sits on the council’s planning committee, suggested at a briefing this month – first reported by the East London and West Essex Guardian - that the council was in effect creating an internal poor door. “Although you have made it tenure-blind, a separate entrance is what we would refer to as a poor door,” she said.

Pye also challenged claims that it was risky to mix the flats on the Wood Street site: “Can I just check that what you’re saying is there is a risk people will not pay as much for a property if they have to live next door to somebody in affordable housing?” A council officer replied that there was such a risk, and it did “impact values”.

Developers frequently insist on rigidly separating affordable housing within already highly segregated schemes. One of the blocks on the vast £1bn Convoys Wharf development in Deptford, south-east London, will have different entrances for residents paying London affordable rents – those on social housing waiting lists – and for slightly better-off households buying into shared ownership.

Campaigner Malcolm Cadman of the Voice 4 Deptford community group said the plan, which was approved last summer, would be needlessly divisive. “I live on a social housing estate. It’s normal to share entrances and corridors. Everybody gets along,” he said. “But Convoys Wharf is completely segregated. It will create social stigma for tenants in a different part of the development.”

The scheme was given the green light by Boris Johnson while he was mayor of London, so local Lewisham council has limited influence. It has asked for more “pepper-potting” – social housing sprinkled around a development – but this is not thought to be enforceable. Paul Bell, cabinet member for housing, said poor doors and tenure-split buildings were unacceptable: “Everyone should be living side by side, but there is resistance from the building industry and some housing associations. It’s not good enough. They need to do better.”

Technology allows developers to control which parts of new buildings people have access to, sometimes with the support of the police. In many tenure-split blocks, access to certain floors is via a fob or key-code, which prevents movement between levels.

Bell, who grew up on a council estate, said this made it harder to get to know people from different walks of life: “Margaret Thatcher said there was no such thing as society but there is, and we need to get on harmoniously. We can’t if neighbours cannot easily socialise.”

The most common form of segregation is the tenure-specific block. West London’s Ealing council, with Malaysian developer EcoWorld, is planning six towers on the site of now closed Gurnell leisure centre, with nearly 200 affordable homes, both shared ownership and rental flats, confined to two blocks.

Campaigners fear those living in the affordable flats may not have access to a roof garden and residents’ hub in the private blocks. Louise Simmonds from the Save Gurnell campaign said council-led projects should be championing inclusive development: “How can we expect to build socially integrated communities when the less well-off are physically segregated not only through their housing but also by being excluded from so called communal areas?”

Ealing council said it could only afford to deliver a new leisure centre and affordable housing by building homes to sell. A spokesperson said: “We are building more genuinely affordable homes than any other London borough, incorporating a tenure-blind approach to design.”

Waltham Forest said the development on the Wood Street library site would have a single shared entrance. Simon Miller, a Labour cabinet member for housing, said: “Separate cores are a feature of the vast majority of mixed-tenure developments and are adopted for day-to-day management reasons and also to ensure that the service charges are kept proportionate and not passed on to the residents in the affordable housing.”

The developer responsible for the Convoys Wharf scheme, Hutchison, declined to comment.


Tom Wall

The GuardianTramp

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