John Bird: For a fairer world we need to shake up the social mix

'Sociable' housing is key to ending the ghettos and stopping the poor – once again – getting a raw deal

wrote last year about ‘sociable’ housing as opposed to ‘social’ housing. My comments caused someone to write to tell me that it wouldn’t work in practice. That the idea of mixing people of various occupations, and pay levels, to break up a ghetto of only the poorest and the dispossessed was utopian.

I did not get into an argument with this particular correspondent because she gave me some anecdotes that would have been easy to dispute or question with other anecdotes. For as I have often said, “you are only as good as the anecdotes you choose to believe.” But who wants to get involved in ‘anecdote swapping’? I certainly did not, but I can say that I have known quite a few socially mixed areas that have kept together and did not produce the failures my correspondent referred to. ‘Sociable’ housing seems a brilliant preference to me over ‘social’ housing, because social housing can ghetto-ise people in need. And we know that ghettos produce numerous other problems including reduced aspirations and opportunities.

Ghettos are the result of separatism, that apartness (from which the word apartheid comes) which is often created by the great and the good, as with the establishment of grammar schools after the Second World War to cream off the high achievers of the working class to manage the system. And of course, any well-heeled university is often a well-oiled consortium of people from a certain group in society, although various governments have tried to punctuate that separatism by insisting on giving others a fair crack of the whip.

Yet, there have been attempts to deliberately dismantle separatism, as in Singapore, where various ethnicities are mixed together block-by-block in social housing, so to enable different peoples to get to know others. In the words of prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, they’re doing their damnedest to avoid a “stratified social system, with each class ignoring the others, or pursuing its interests at the expense of others”.

Singapore's Pinnacle@Duxton is 50 storeys of state-built housing – with a sky garden 156 metres up

While Singapore’s examples have imperfections they are at least recognition of the need to break open the ghettos. If the hand is not wise social engineers know there will be cock-ups and fights and strains. But if there is education and integration we know it can work.

The council, unable to integrate these people or meet their needs, put them together and forgot about them. High-rise ghettos are still ghettos

I was reminded of these issues when I looked at photos of the Grenfell Tower disaster, and those who actually lost their lives. It was as if the local authority had swept people up from various parts of the borough and placed them in Grenfell from all parts of the world. That tower was home to African and European migrants. Refugees and asylum-seekers. Black British and the white working class of London. The council, unable to integrate these people or meet their needs, put them together and forgot about them. One of the greatest tragedies is that so many people who were escaping bitterness and sometimes civil war in their own countries got caught up in neglectful and dangerous living conditions. High-rise ghettos are still ghettos.

Unfortunately, the rule of thumb appears to be that the poorer people are, the poorer the service they will receive. Only those with clout in the community would get the kind of safeguards that were seriously missing from Grenfell. Only those who are prosperous can shout about what’s wrong and not be fobbed off with low standards.

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Many millions of words have been consumed on Grenfell. Last week, The London Review of Books devoted a whole issue in which only the ads were not about the burning tower of Grenfell. I bought the copy but could not get up the enthusiasm necessary to plough through thousands and thousands of words about what is an indictment on the way we handle people who come here in need, or who fall into need whilst here.

People in need are mostly given a third-rate service. And to keep costs down that awful invention ‘outsourcing’ is brought into use. The contractor, often subbing from another sub-contractor, ends up like the metaphorical hyena on the plains of the Serengeti, picking the bones after what was once a decent meal. The cheaper the job becomes, the less value it creates, the less attention is paid – regardless of the tremendous value it might hold for society. So, what could be life-threatening is lost in the subbing process where each takes a bite out of the money offered for the task. As a result, the area that I was born in, raised children in, and worked and lived in in later life has become symbolic of what is considered so wrong with a class-divided modern Britain. A true them and us.

Yet, only a few hundred yards from the tower is Holland Park, which must be one of the most expensive places on earth to buy a house – where the ‘average’ property is £2.3m

Could we solve all these problems by mixing up the mix, the social mix? I am sure there will be those who can quote chapter and verse of where this has not worked. But the alternative is the systemic separation of society into the comfortable and the uncomfortable, and the problems that can go with that kind of separation.

The area where Grenfell stands has been a blight on London for many, many decades. And statistics from 2015 show it remains among the 10 per cent most deprived areas in the country. The movement of central London property values is such that you would not have much money left over out of a million pounds if you bought even the simplest of flats within the shadows of Grenfell. Yet, only a few hundred yards from the tower is Holland Park, which must be one of the most expensive places on earth to buy a house – where the ‘average’ property is £2.3m.

Grenfell and its awful, avoidable tragedy is a salutary lesson in cost-cutting and giving the poor the shitty end of the stick. Sociable housing, mixing up the social mix, might be a way to help some social justice to creep into this argument.