Racial discrimination in housing can be enormously damaging. Photo: Getty
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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, unequalmeasures.com

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”