Racial discrimination in housing can be enormously damaging. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Does London's housing industry have a problem with race?

The UK has perfectly decent race discrimination laws – but in an area as complex as housing, the government must double down on efforts to enforce this legislation.

Last month, a major housing developer in south east London faced complaints from local residents that not enough white faces were being shown on their advertising hoardings – for their shiny riverside apartments selling for up to £800,000.

The complainants pointed to several prominent hoardings which featured people one can reasonably presume were the desired target owner-occupier – white Caucasian young professionals. The developer has since disputed the residents disgruntlement – saying that other hoardings around the site used black and Asian faces. These were, however, less prominently positioned.

Having spoken to those who complained, it's clear that regardless of whether the firm's marketing was racially biased, the issue had touched a nerve.

There was a belief that housing developers in south east London wanted to attract wealthier white professionals, at the expense of local ethnic minorities – who have often lived in the area for longer and in some cases account for half the local population. They see the slew of hipster cafes, mahogany coated wine bars and rising house prices as a gentrification process inextricably entwined with race economics.

It's a gripe I experienced when living in Brixton, south London, a few years ago. I'm a white “young professional” – and had moved to the area midway through its extraordinary gentrification process. One observation of race could be seen on the bus down Brixton Hill, to the Tube station, where most of the white passengers off-loaded and jumped on the Underground, while black and Asian passengers mainly stayed on the bus, heading for central London. Underground tickets in London are roughly twice as expensive as buses, and it was an unsettling and embarrassing demonstration of how important race still is in determining income inequality. Black Caribbean Londoners are 50 per cent more likely than white Londoners to come from low-income households, while black Africans are more likely.

In 2013, an investigation by the BBC discovered letting agents in London were quietly conspiring to ensure black tenants weren't offered leases, on request from racist landlords. When approached by black tenants, the agents would simply pretend the flat had already been let, or promise to call them back – but never following through. A year previously, the BBC had uncovered numerous private advertisements for flats which asked for “Asian only” or “Indian only” tenants, demonstrating that racism can “flow both ways.” In 2009, the BBC found that letting agents in Lincolnshire had been excluding migrant workers at the request of landlords

The legislative framework is also muddled. Discrimination on the grounds of colour or nationality is technically allowed if someone is taking in a lodger in small premises, or if an owner-occupier is selling their home privately.

When it comes to social housing, there is, despite what the far right claim, little to suggest that immigrants or racial minorities are any more likely to make it off the 2m strong waiting list and into a council house.

But black and ethnic minority (BAME) housing associations have faded from public life. Established in the Seventies and Eighties, they have since largely been assimilated into larger associations, and lost their specialised identity. It has long been argued these groups promote racial separation, which in some part is true – but there is no denying that racial minorities in the UK have specific social problems that might be better addressed by close support from housing associations, not big government.

Any actual or perceived element of racial discrimination in housing can be enormously damaging. Some have attributed the Ferguson riots last year to poorly formulated housing policy that came about in the mid twentieth century. On the other side, developing housing policy which specifically addresses income inequalities between ethnic groups can have a pronounced and positive effect on community cohesion. The UK has perfectly decent race discrimination laws – but in an area as complex as housing, with so many moving parts of such varying scale, the government must double down on efforts to enforce this legislation.

Alastair Sloan,

Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chaiman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after he was warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.