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25 June 2020updated 12 Oct 2023 11:16am

Britain’s diversity is much more complex than it seems

Analysis at a neighbourhood level shows the country is far more diverse in some areas – and far less in others – than the top-line figures suggest.

By Ben Walker

The last census recorded that 63 million people lived in the UK, of whom more than eight million come from of a minority ethnic background.

But that doesn’t say much; Britain’s diversity is not equally spread out. In Scotland just over 4 per cent of the populace was non-white, compared to 14 per cent in England and Wales. Britain’s ethnic minorities are concentrated in England, almost entirely in a select few towns and cities, such as London, Birmingham, Luton and the urban conurbations straddling West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester. A white person could grow up on the coast of Yorkshire, just two hours away from one of the most diverse cities in the region, and have next to no interaction with someone of a different ethnicity.

Perhaps the most startling figure from 2001 is that one in five of the UK’s minority population lived in just over one per cent of electoral wards.

But even in cities with a relatively rich ethnic mix, the pattern is far from uniform. We have been able to use detailed demographic data to build a picture of diversity at a granular, neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood level. It shows that it isn’t just rural Britain that lacks diversity – a lot of neighbourhoods in our towns and cities do, too.

London serves as an excellent case study here. The UK’s capital is, overall, one of the most international and multi-ethnic cities in the world.

Ethnic breakdown of London:

Just over two people in five are from an ethnic minority background. But that isn’t to say that walking down any London street, two in every five people you pass will be BAME. Boroughs such as Westminister or Camden are far more diverse than Bexley or Brent.

The proportion of residents who are non-white actually varies from as low as 15.9 per cent in some boroughs to as high as 71.2 per cent in others.

When we drill down to neighbourhood level, the variance is even more stark. Our map is shows the largest ethnic group in each area: the vast majority of neighbourhoods are grey, meaning white people are the largest group.

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While there is no universal agreement among academics as to what is considered a segregated or ghettoised community, some have considered an 80 or 90 per cent threshold for one ethnic group an acceptable definition.

Using 85 per cent as a reasonable threshold, we see neighbourhoods where white people are in a very large majority (coloured grey on the map below) are scattered across large parts of London, particularly on the eastern periphery.

There are also a small number of neighbourhoods where more than 85 per cent of the population are non-white (coloured yellow). These are tightly clustered in East Ham, Southall and Wembley Park.

While the neighbourhoods coloured yellow are largely non-white, that doesn’t mean they lack diversity. Though predominantly Asian, the neighbourhoods within East Ham that are overwhelmingly non-white have recorded increasing numbers of both black and mixed-race residents over the past few decades.

At the same time, the number of white people both within these neighbourhoods and the immediate vicinity has been falling since 1991.

These non-white neighbourhoods have been growing more diverse in one respect, but increasingly isolated from the rest of London society in another.

Further north, we find towns and cities where this pattern is even more pronounced.

With a population that’s 50 per cent white and 37 per cent Asian, Leicester is the most diverse city outside the M25. But that diversity is not evenly distributed. One in five of its neighbourhoods has a population that is more than 85 per cent non-white. This share is up by 13 percentage points since 2001, and is far higher than other cities and London boroughs of similar or near-similar diversity overall:

Non-white neighbourhoods more isolated from the rest of the local area have risen most in Leicester and Newham

The share of Leicester’s neighbourhoods that are more than 85 per cent white, meanwhile, is seven per cent, down 24 per cent since 2001.

Back in London, we see a more integrated picture: Newham has a much larger BAME community than Leicester, but fewer neighbourhoods where less than 15 per cent of the population is white.

The direction of travel across the country is the same: as the ethnic minority population grows, white neighbourhoods grow less exclusively white. Overall across England, the proportion of neighbourhoods that are more than 85 per cent white fell between 2001 and 2011 by an average of eight per cent.

But the picture isn’t uniform, and there remains a high degree of segregation in many towns and cities. Ethnic minorities make up more than 30 per cent of the population in Bradford and Blackburn, for example, but more than half of neighbourhoods in both places remain more than 85 per cent white.

What this means is that, while towns and cities in the UK have become less ethnically homogeneous, this hasn’t always translated into greater diversity at neighbourhood level. Leicester, Bradford, Oldham and Blackburn, among others, have seen a sharp rise in neighbourhoods where fewer than 15 per cent of the population was white. The number of minority neighbourhoods segregated from the largest ethnic group in the population has increased.

Segregation and a lack of integration are problems for society and the economy that successive governments have tried to address. In 2018, the government identified poor employment opportunities as just one consequence of isolation among communities.

“Isolation” as an issue transcends ethnicity – the top ten most deprived neighbourhoods in England are also some of the whitest and most northern – but it is also true that neighbourhoods with the highest BAME concentrations are more likely to suffer from deprivation.

This is particularly evident in the north of England, where just one neighbourhood with a majority non-white population, tucked away in Yorkshire, is less deprived than the national average.

There is a huge amount of work to do in unpicking the relationship between ethnicity, deprivation, social mobility and life expectancy. What is clear is that there is a relationship; adding in geographical division might make those fault lines sharper and harder to dissolve.

At the very least it should give those of us who like to think we live in diverse towns and cities pause for thought. We might be misunderstanding the nature of that diversity; we might be overstating it; and as a result we might be failing to recognise the challenges that others face.

With thanks to Josh Rayman for the data visualisation.

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