Mixing social housing in with privately owned homes is key to making British cities more vibrant and liveable


It’s the story of a guy who falls from the 50th floor of a building. The guy, on his way down, repeats to himself “so far so good… so far so good”. But the most important thing isn’t the fall, it’s the landing.

This quote is from the 1995 French film La Haine, about a day in the lives of three young men from a deprived housing estate in the suburbs of Paris. It was written in response to the riots that paralysed France in 1993. Last year, angry and disenfranchised Parisian youths flocked from the suburbs to the city centre again, to try to take on a system that is keeping them in a borderland state: a state of quasi exclusion, both geographic and social.

The response from the government was practical and symbolic: cancel all travel from the suburbs to the city centres. It was a short term, reactionary gesture, but one symptomatic of a general approach to social housing in France, where the less well-off are relegated to the periphery, in large housing estates.

In the UK, the affordable housing policy is much more inclusive and mixed. New housing developments must generally include a portion of affordable housing, irrespective of their location. This is not a panacea for solving all of society’s ills - Britain saw similar rioting in 2011 - but does address one major drawback of the French system: the segregation of different members of society into distinct ghettos.

It is sometimes pointed out to me by friends and colleagues how unfair it is that that some people should have access to affordable housing in city centres, and pay only a fraction of the rent a private tenant would pay. Social rent can be a low as 50% of private rent, while ‘affordable’ is usually around 80%.

On the face of it, all other things being equal, this indignation is justified. It stands against such high moral principles as a fair and equitable society, and it can conjure up imaginary scenes of social and affordable tenants living a life of plenty in their city centre condos, while the rest of us hard working folk, relegated to more peripheral boroughs, are struggling to make ends meet.

But the reality is that the advantages of mixed housing communities in city centres are numerous, and actually benefit even the most ardent of free-marketeers.

Some of the social benefits are obvious ones. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown that large, mono-tenure housing estates lead to low income households being trapped in their disadvantaged areas, isolated from job opportunities, often leading to a vicious circle of poverty and social exclusion. The quality of schools in those areas suffers, and families with young children try as best they can to move away.

Only joined-up thinking will deliver the social housing that our communities and economy desperately need

This, alongside the high turnover of tenants, leads to less social cohesion and spontaneous mutual support. Mixed communities enable people to live and prosper independently, with less reliance on more temporary ‘sticking plaster’ help such as jobseeker’s allowance or housing benefit.

This sustainability is social and environmental: local jobs and amenities keep carbon footprints to a minimum. From a psychological point of view, an inclusive community prevents social stigma, the sense of alienation which is a catalyst for street violence.

But perhaps the more winnable argument, against those of a more libertarian inclination, is theeconomic one. At a time where rents are spiraling upwards (residents in the UK pay a higher proportion of their income on rent than residents of any other country in Europe), it is the people living in affordable city centre housing that are able to provide the labour that keeps our cities going and our businesses profitable.

According to the Centre for Economics and Business Research, residents living in social housing contributed £15 billion to London’s economy in 2015. Even the private sector is in on this: Deloitte, for example, subsidise their entry level staff’s London rent, in order to enable them to live near their place of work. One third of London’s police officers and ambulance staff are living in social housing - does society really wish to banish its essential workers from the areas where they are needed?

“But the most important thing isn’t the fall, it’s the landing”, says the man in the film.

Six local councils have declared bankruptcy since 2021, and one in five councils are estimated to be at risk. They are buckling under the cost of increasing demand for social services, including housing assistance. The budget shortfall for homelessness support alone is expected to be £150 million this year for London Councils.

This is leading to an increase in councils having to send families in housing need to boroughs outside of London. In some cases, people are being sent hundreds of miles away, which, in the long term, will compound the problem.

The government recently announced a £64bn package to help councils with social care and housing. This is unfortunately a sticking plaster solution to a problem that could have been avoided by having the right funding at the right time. As demonstrated by the recent case of the £4.2bn Housing Infrastructure Fund, of which two thirds remains unspent, the current system is not delivering. Only joined-up thinking will deliver the social housing that our communities and economy desperately need.