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Britain is becoming more diverse, not more segregated

The percentage decline in the white British population in some urban areas of England has been used in a recent, controversial report to suggest that segregation is on the increase. But ahead of the imminent publication of a government review into integration which will focus on segregation and extremism, we need to look carefully at the evidence on how ethnic segregation and diversity have changed in recent decades.

Misuses of the loaded terms “segregation”, “polarisation”, “integration” and “diversity” can fuel social divisions and misunderstandings between communities. These issues are receiving renewed political attention, and as a consequence the debate must not be muddied by an uncritical use of terminology or a lack of clarity on what is being measured. This can create confusion about the ways in which neighbourhoods have changed their ethnic make-up, and what this says about relations between different groups.

We can be clear about several features of ethnic population change. Britain is becoming much more ethnically diverse, and at the same time, less segregated. Taken simply as our likelihood of living next door to someone of a different ethnicity, our neighbourhoods have never been more ethnically mixed.

This can be seen in analysis of residential segregation for each ethnic group using the “index of dissimilarly” – an indicator of the geographic spread of ethnic groups. Comparing census data in 2001 and 2011 shows a pattern of decreasing segregation between ethnic groups – between each minority ethnic group and between the white British and each minority group.

Segregation is different to diversity

It is critical that segregation is not conflated with diversity.

Take, say, a neighbourhood which in 2001 was 80% white British and 20% Indian, and in 2011 was 25% white British, 25% Indian, 25% Pakistani and 25% black Caribbean. The 2011 neighbourhood should only be understood as more segregated if the proportion of white British is seen as the “gold standard” of ethnic mixing.

Rather, it is more diverse, now home to several ethnic groups. This is the case for numerous census wards where, between 1991 and 2011, diversity spread out geographically, growing in traditionally diverse urban areas and in rural areas.

This spatial diffusion of diversity is down to reasons which are far from headline-grabbing: migration out of cities to suburban and rural areas for a bigger house, green spaces, a quieter lifestyle. This process is much more to do with socio-economic class than ethnicity. And so it highlights the need to tackle the worryingly persistent ethnic inequalities between white British and minority groups, which may prevent some from achieving their aspirations for where they want to live.

There is a current focus on a “two way street” approach to developing inter-group relationships, which says that both minority groups and the majority are responsible for integration. This is more helpful than focusing on one minority group, which serves only to isolate and stigmatise – something experienced by the UK’s Muslim population.

Everyone is responsible for social integration. Thinglass/

Sex, death and moving house

Yet we must be careful that we are not searching for a problem to be solved. Natural demographic momentum – births, mortality, and migration – is bringing people of different ethnic groups together, rather than moving them apart. It is not surprising that there is growth of minority groups in areas where they are already populous, since we would expect groups which are increasing their population size (because they have young age profiles) to grow in the area where they currently live.

The declines in white British populations within many areas will be due to a combination of internal migration, emigration, and mortality in an ageing ethnic group. Movement out of London, and several other large cities, will almost inevitably be to a less diverse neighbourhood since urban areas are much more diverse than the rest of the country. Since minority ethnic groups are growing in these less diverse, more rural, locales, the end result is greater ethnic mixing.

While the overall picture is greater sharing of neighbourhoods between people of different ethnic groups, the processes behind this pattern are as ordinary as they get: sex, death and moving house.

This is not to paint an overly rosy picture. The vote for Brexit demonstrates the need to improve social relations and understandings between different communities, and to consider the concerns of disenfranchised groups. But we need to be clear about what the statistics can actually tell us.

Segregation means different things to different people, but tends to conjure images of minority – not white – concentration, and of negative outcomes: deprivation, isolation, and, most dramatically, extremism. It is often seen as undesirable, as something to be solved, whereas concepts like neighbourhood belonging, or local social networks, are generally understood as positive.

Segregation can have both good and bad outcomes, and can be the consequence of both positive and negative processes. Given the different social meanings of segregation and the complexities of its measurement, commentary on this topic needs to be aware of its potential uses and abuses.

There are multiple layers in which people may mix outside their residential environment – they may go to work, socialise, attend religious services, shop, or exercise with others from a myriad of different backgrounds. Combined with the changing ethnic make-up of neighbourhoods, we are more likely than ever to encounter someone with a different ethnicity to our own.

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