'Mixed Communities' – not sustainable in the long run

‘Mixed Communities’ – not sustainable in the long run (from London Housing magazine, December 2003) and published on IWCA National Site

The push for a greater social mix in our communities is accepted by nearly all without question as a good thing. That’s wrong, says the London Tenant Federation. All the evidence suggests gentrification on a massive scale, leaving council tenants marginalised.

Whilst the Government and housing professionals chant the mantra, “in order to be sustainable, communities must be socially mixed”, those of us living in social housing and in deprived communities have been absent from the debate.For council tenants living in London, particularly in inner London, the policy appears to mean little more than the encouragement of gentrification, and for our local authorities to sell off our homes and community facilities for development. Many of London’s council tenants feel that, far from strengthening and sustaining our communities, this approach puts their homes and communities under threat, particularly in areas that have become fashionable and where property prices are sky high.

The approach seems to fit neatly with other policies, such as the lack of positive investment in council housing, rent restructuring and proposed housing benefit reform. All have a detrimental effect on tenants living in areas with wealthy neighbours. The truth is that in London there is enormous social and economic polarisation. Inner London is the richest area in the European Union and yet the capital also contains three of the most deprived boroughs in the country. The average price of a property here is now more than £250,000, requiring a household income of £83,000 to purchase. Enclaves of wealthy, white, middle-class residents sit alongside areas with huge levels of deprivation – and the truth is that they just don’t mix.

Research by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the University of East London (UEL) finds little evidence of gentrification as a positive force. Whilst the proponents of the socially mixed communities policy will state that they are not advocating gentrification, Tim Butler at UEL suggests “nobody is in favour of gentrification and even local authorities, which wish to change their ‘social mix’ of housing or population, refer to it by any other name”.

In a study in gentrified areas of Lambeth, Islington, Hackney, Lewisham and Wandsworth, Tim Butler found “little evidence of the middle class deploying its resources for the benefits of the wider community.” He says: “London’s middle classes share a common relationship to each other which is largely exclusive of those who are not ‘people like us’ – most strikingly perhaps in relation to their ethnicity. In a city that is massively multi-ethnic, its middle classes, despite long rhetorical flushes in favour of multi-culturalism and diversity, huddle together into essentially white settlements in the inner city. Their children have friends like their parents and most of their parents’ friends are people like themselves.”

The ESRC study sought to evaluate more than 100 pieces of research predominantly in North America and in the UK. The policy context for the research was the Government’s commitment to try to encourage private sector investment in deprived and run-down areas. Its June 2002 report says that the positive impacts of gentrification were hard to find. The much “wider set of costs” included displacement of poorer households through price and rent increases, community conflict and racial tension, lower population densities and a greater take on local spending by incoming affluent households. Anecdotal evidence from London Tenant Federation meetings seems to support to this academic research. Our members note that, across London, there are examples of council estates in regeneration/stock transfer schemes that are dependent on demolition of some blocks to sell off to developers. The new apartments constructed in their place are designed with a clear separation from the social housing – most obviously aesthetically and frequently with entrances facing away from the rest of the estate. Expensive cafés and restaurants are built which then push out existing local shops. If the new wealthy residents have children, they are unlikely to attend local schools that are dominated by children from council estates. Council tenants feel that the priority for council and police resources is focused on the more expensive areas and away from our estates. If London’s council tenants are asked what we think will make our communities sustainable, we are likely to suggest: positive investment in our homes and in new council homes; rents that reflect the qualities we value in our homes rather than the area’s property values; good access to employment, leisure and youth facilities and good care for our young and old. Missing from the list though, almost certainly, will be the demand for “socially mixed communities”.