Dividing rich and poor is inevitable when developers run open spaces | Rowan Moore | Opinion

There’s no good way of looking at this. Sometimes, when waves of outrage break, a contrarian voice might ask if it’s as bad as all that, if there isn’t another side to the story. In the case of the Baylis Old School development in south London, where children from affordable housing have been excluded from a playground used by the children of private owner-occupiers, there is no excuse.

This segregated playground is plain mean-spirited. It goes against a strength of London and other British cities, which is that people of different backgrounds both live close together and share spaces. It contradicts the 2012 planning application made by the project’s developers, which says that “play areas will be designed to maximise their inclusivity” and that open spaces will “emphasise the sense of community within the scheme stressing that the common areas are there for the use of all the residents”.

The shift does not appear to have happened by accident. In 2016, the developer Henley Homes sought approval from the London borough of Lambeth to amend its plans so as to cut off social housing residents from the play area, but was refused. It installed a hedge and wall anyway. Last week, having unified the Labour mayor of London and the Tory housing secretary in opposition to its actions, Henley Homes announced that the playground would be open to all. Residents are understandably sceptical, given that the hedges and wall remain.

It’s also worth noting the difference between the playgrounds on the development. Neither, by the designers Rycroft Associates, is a masterpiece of the art of landscaping, but the posh playground is at least green and expansive. The affordable housing tenants get a meagre fenced-in strip dotted with play equipment. “It might just work for sheep-shearing,” I’m told by an expert on public space, “but no one who had seen a child play could think this was acceptable.”

The bigger question is why developers should have become the primary providers of playgrounds in particular and public space in general – the skill sets required for the cut-throat business of property speculation being different from those of creating sympathetic and inclusive environments for the young. For this, one has to look to the concept of planning gain, sometimes called section 106 agreements, whereby local authorities require public benefits in return for awarding planning permission.

Originally intended as a way of compensating for the impacts of development – road improvements to deal with increased traffic, for example – planning gain now requires developers to provide an ever-lengthening list of goodies, including affordable housing and playgrounds. It is a tax that dare not speak its name. It is the outcome of an ideology that, rather than levy taxes that local authorities can then spend on the public good, prefers to make councils haggle with developers.

It’s not all bad. It means that these costs primarily come from land value, which means that the hit is taken by landowners for whom, in expensive places such as London, one does not need to feel too sorry. A document such as the planning application for the Baylis Old School development is in a way impressive: the applicants are obliged to consider everything from the provision of play space to respect for the listed buildings of the school that used to be on this site. It’s a statement of civilised urban values on which the planning system tries to insist.

But planning gain turns developers into ersatz municipalities and local authorities into large lobbying groups, whose aim is to wheedle as much as possible out of planning consents. It encourages a box-ticking mentality whereby the open spaces of a development such as Baylis Old School become a choreography of enclosures, each one supposedly serving a different aspect of the common good. It puts the vital spaces of cities in the hands of people who would rather be thinking about something else.

It also creates a begrudging mentality. I’ve heard developers compare themselves to luxury car dealers, for whom the enforced provision of affordable housing is like giving away Ferraris. At a certain point in debates such as the one about the segregated playground, someone will say that people who pay more are entitled to more. (And indeed the company that manages the private part of the Baylis development has said that the segregation was “fair and reasonable”, as the affordable housing tenants don’t pay a service charge.)

Such arguments overlook the fact that value is in part created by public investment, that Ferraris wouldn’t be worth much without roads to drive on. They also fail to see that there is a common interest, whatever your income level, in shared space, in which respect it’s notable that objections to the Baylis segregation come both from private owners and the tenants of affordable housing. But these arguments are given force by the mechanism of planning gain, which creates the impression that developers are being asked to subject their personal property to an endless list of demands.

In a perfect world, a developer such as Henley Homes would employ a more imaginative designer than Rycroft to create a landscape enjoyable and accessible to all residents, something like a small park. Everyone would win. This does indeed happen – there are successful examples of new developments where people of different tenures collaborate on their common areas and get round the problem of service charges – but they are largely dependent on the enlightenment and goodwill of the developer.

At this point, the case becomes strong for an honest-to-goodness tax, one whose proceeds could be spent by people who actually do know and care about things such as play spaces. This may or may not be a local authority. It is more likely to be community groups and projects, such as the adventure playground that stands just across the street. Open to all, it shows considerably more love and invention than either of the play spaces in the Baylis development.

Rowan Moore is the Observer’s architecture correspondent

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