Patrick Mulrenan offers a brief history of physical segregation between social housing tenants and private owners, and argues that the idea of mixed communities as a solution is problematic.

A recent article in the Guardian revealed that segregation by social class is still a feature of housing in the UK. A newly developed site in Lambeth has a playground reserved for the children of better-off residents, while the children of social housing tenants are kept out by a physical barrier. The outcry has led to the developer to reverse the decision, but what does this tell us about attitudes to families who live in social housing in the UK? This is, however, not new. Council tenants have faced physical segregation for many decades. And it is only news because we feel uncomfortable when the reality of parallel lives – particularly for children – is played out in physical barriers.

Lack of mobility and social segregation have been identified as a key social problem by successive Prime Ministers:

We must do something about the inner cities. I don’t want there to be forgotten people any more. This means fighting against the burning injustice that if you were born poor, you will die on average nine years younger than the others. It means giving everyone in the country a chance, so no matter where you are from, you have the opportunity to make the most of your life.

This is in fact one sentence from each of the speeches made by Margaret Thatcher (1987), Tony Blair (1997), David Cameron (2015) and Theresa May (2016) when they first entered office. It demonstrates at least an oratorical commitment to removing the social barriers that the segregated playground represent in physical form.

The other thing that recent Prime Ministers have had in common is that they have, in different ways, regarded social housing as a barrier to social mobility. It has taken the recent tragic fire at Grenfell Tower, in which 72 council tenants died, to force a reappraisal of the role of social housing, Sajid Javid, the then housing minister noting ‘we need to return to a time, not so very long ago, when social housing was valued…treasured’.

But the physical segregation of social housing tenants has happened over many generations. The most famous example was the Cutteslowe Walls in Oxford. In 1934, the developer built a wall topped by barbed wire between residents of a private estate and a council estate. The developer argued that rehousing people from slums to the new council homes would reduce the value of his properties. It ran across a main road and through gardens, and prevented the tenants from reaching shops and bus stops. Despite the opposition of tenants and the local council, the wall was not removed until 1959. It came down briefly in 1943, when a tank on mock war manoeuvres crashed into it, but went up again quickly when the Ministry of Defence apologised and funded rebuilding. Interestingly, as late as 1956, two thirds of home owners felt the wall should not be removed, and 34 home owners lodged planning appeals to prevent its demolition.

The post-war period was marked by the building of council estates which, if not separated from the local community by a wall, were sometimes separated geographically and socially. Some of these estates became associated with poverty and stigma. As one commentator said, they were ‘hard to let, difficult to live in and sometimes difficult to get out of’. From being what Sajid Javid called ‘a gold standard of accommodation’, they became areas where those who were vulnerable and had no choice were housed. Successive government policies, including the Right to Buy, reduced social housing from a badge of citizenship to a symbol of segregation. Between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, the median income of council tenants fell from 73% of that of home owners to just 43%. For those born after 1970, there is a strong correlation between renting from a social landlord and social disadvantage, and one in seven are now embarrassed to tell people they are social housing tenants.

While the perception of social housing has changed over time, the ‘solution’ has been consistent over the last 30 years: mixed communities. In practice, this has meant ‘mixed tenure’. To paraphrase Aneurin Bevan, the home owner, the private renter, and the social housing tenant should all live in the same street. The appeal of such mixed developments are obvious to policy makers: social housing tenants are no longer identified or labelled by where they live. But underlying this policy is an assumption that poor people living close to better off people will mix socially, and will benefit from the social capital and networks that their neighbours possess. The new mixed developments will have a ‘middle class miasma’ that will inspire those who have been left behind economically. The evidence behind this is surprisingly thin, given its almost universal political support. There is little to show that the middle class is mixing with others on these newly developed estates, and some evidence that they have become skilled at social ‘distancing’ with their new neighbours.

Which brings us to the question: is physical segregation new, and why is it news? Reflecting on the history of social housing it is certainly not new. The reason why it is news is that it reflects back to us an uncomfortable truth, that irrespective of walls, hedges and political speeches, the life chances of many young people are differentiated and may be limited by their social backgrounds.


About the Author

Patrick Mulrenan is course leader for the BSc Community Development and Leadership at London Metropolitan University




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay/Public Domain.

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