Anti-homeless spikes: a visible symbol of a underlying trend. (Photo: Getty)
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Social segregation is rising - what's to be done about it?

Social segregation - of races, classes and religions - is on the rise in Britain. A new report suggests ways out of the mess.

At a time of hardening attitudes to both disadvantaged people and immigrants, it is vital that politicians take levels of social integration – the extent to which people from different backgrounds meet and mix – seriously.

Research by the Social Integration Commission, which I chair, has shown that the average Briton has on average about half as many interactions with people from different age groups, classes and ethnicities as would occur if their social networks were randomly drawn from the local population. This problem affects all sections of our society – white people are as likely to have unrepresentative networks as people belonging to other ethnicities, whilst highly diverse areas are not necessarily integrated. Indeed, Londoners’ networks are amongst the furthest away from reflecting the makeup of the communities in which they live. Our research also revealed that the most extreme form of segregation in modern Britain doesn’t relate to a lack of interaction between different ethnic groups, but rather between the rich and poor.

Social segregation is curtailing our ability to solve key economic and social challenges. Around 40 per cent of jobs in the UK are found through personal contacts. As a result, when it comes to recruiting new staff, informal networks shaped according to ethnicity, age and income background limit the talent pool available to employers. Low levels of integration additionally increase anxiety and fear of the unknown, leading to greater ill-health and isolation in later life. The Commission estimates that a lack of integration costs our economy £6 billion, or approximately 0.5 per cent of GDP, each year.

However, more important than the sums or any particular policy challenge is the broader point that sits at the heart of why levels of integration matter. Unless action is taken to reduce social segregation, the danger grows that in the face of the many and complex challenges of the future, instead of asking ‘how can we solve this together?’, the people of the UK will ask ‘who can we blame?’

In our new report, Kingdom United? Thirteen steps to tackle social segregation, the Commission makes a series of recommendations on what can practically be done to create a more integrated and socially cohesive society.

It’s challenging to get policy right in an area which feels largely to be the domain of people’s voluntary – even ‘natural’ – choices but, through targeted and intelligent interventions, we could create many new opportunities for people from different backgrounds to meet and mix.

For instance, the recent drive to open free schools has led to increased numbers of children being educated in peer groups dominated by a single faith group or community. The Prime Minister’s current promise to build 500 new free schools if he is re-elected will further intensify this problem. To ameliorate the impact of this trend, the Commission is calling on the Department for Education to only approve applications for new faith schools when the petitioners have a clear plan for pupils to meet and mix with children from different faith backgrounds and communities

Residential segregation is also on the rise, and we view the growing trend for separate entrances to housing developments for private and social tenants as a particularly disquieting – almost Dickensian – development. Through Kingdom United?, the Commission urges local authorities to ban the installation of ‘poor doors’ and ‘rich gates’ in their areas.

We must ensure that the UK’s trajectory towards greater diversity does not undermine the cohesiveness and long-term success of our society. This will require policymakers to own up to the challenges posed by a segregated society, and to develop new ways for people from all sections of our society to meet and connect.

Matthew Taylor became Chief Executive of the RSA in November 2006. Prior to this appointment, he was Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to the Prime Minister.
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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.