Social Statistics

Society, Statistics (and some sermons)

Social Statistics - Society, Statistics (and some sermons)

Why have the white British left London? A quick response to Mark Easton

Excellent report on this morning’s Today programme by Mark Easton, with a written piece at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-21511904. The facts and figures he presents complement my own (http://www.social-statistics.org/?cat=5).

In his reports, Mark suggests that the decline in the White British population in London (as well as in other urban centres) is less about ‘white flight’ or ‘urban flight’ and more about aspiration and opportunity, as people who can afford to do so move out into the countryside.

I have a lot of sympathy with this argument which, in terms of describing a process of movement out from the centre of a city, as those who are able to do so, move on, has its roots in the Chicago School of urban sociology and especially the well-known Burgess model. The positive message of movement and aspiration – true of all ethnic groups – also echos Ludi Simpson’s work.

However, I am not yet convinced it tells the whole story. Other articles in the media (perhaps opportunistic) have documented the push factors as well as the pull factor creating demographic change. People do move on. But they also move out. It is awkward to say it but part of the push can be people’s dislike of ethnic or cultural change in their neighbourhoods. This tension comes across, for example, in Tim Butler’s and Chris Hamnett’s work on the East End and the decisions / school choices people make there. It also comes across in some of the comments following Mark’s article at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-21511904.

In a debate later in the programme, Danny Dorling suggested that the phrase white flight is dated and not helpful, whilst Oona King was more prepared to defend it. Certainly it is an emotive phrase and lacks nuance. But there is a risk that in discarding its sentiment entirely we begin to view the world though rose-tinted spectacles (which is probably quite a nice thing to do if you happen to be looking at a distance but not so great if it leaves you with blind spots as to people’s real lived circumstances). Danny also mentioned that in some parts of London the White British population are not leaving in their droves but being replaced by a younger population enjoying living in a multicultural city. True, though perhaps surprisingly for him he did not add the wealth element to this geography – it is the traditionally ‘blue collar’ and less central boroughs that are seeing the greatest losses. Places like Kensington do, of course, remain attractive but only to those who can afford to live there!

So what we see in London and its periphery are intersecting geographies of ethnicity, social mobility, inequality and opportunity. There is a lot to be debated and, in debating, we should aim to see the positives and the negatives of what is a truly fascinating city. Unfortunately, a possible negative is “sundown segregation” – described in this report by David Goodhart. As Kish wrote in the American Sociological Review almost sixty years ago:

“Whereas the productive activity usually requires cooperation in one place of people from different layers of society, they can separate at the gates of the factory or office building as each goes home his own way. Thus a person can choose his neighbours; and his choices result in the homogenous and highly differentiated ‘natural areas’ within the metropolitan city. Moreover, now he can drive to a suburb of his choice, and again he chooses to have as neighbors people whose habits, income, occupation, and other characteristics resemble his own. Whether by choice, influence or propensity, the characteristics of people in each suburb tend to homogeneity.  Thus we find some homogeneity of economic status, of occupation, and of attitudes; and they tend to reinforce each other. This may help to create a segmented society, to augment other tendencies toward stratification.”

Now such an argument may not apply to London (it is describing American cities). It is an over-simplification, not least because not all people have so many choices. And it may be dated. However, it may also contain a grain or more of truth.