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.