Written by:
Omar Khan

False fears of 'white flight' in London and elsewhere

Read time:
9 minutes

With migration never far from the news agenda and rhetoric around integration quick to follow, we - the news consuming public - are periodically fed stories about ‘no go’ areas in Britain, especially London.  The suggestion is that certain neighbourhoods have become ‘majority minority,’ with so many ethnic minority residents that their presence makes white British people fearful or otherwise unwilling to enter, much less live, in such areas. 

We’ve previously written how these claims misunderstand the nature of segregation in London, where wards are already very small localities of 15,000 people or fewer, with no ward recording more than 47% of any ethnic minority group in the 2011 census. In most wards, white British people are still the largest single ethnic group, and it is only possible to talk about ‘majority minority’ areas by lumping all people of colour together in one group, and contrasting them to white British people.

While the ethnic minority population has been rising significantly over the past five decades, three trends are indicated by comparing 2001 and 2011 Census data, and more recent estimates published by the ONS on population growth between 2012 and 2017. First, while the overall population continues to rise, the proportional rate of growth is slowing. Second, in some of the ‘most diverse’ areas, the black and minority ethnic (BME) population is no longer growing, and even reversing. This is partly explaining a third related trend; namely the overall dispersal of BME people outside of Britain’s major urban centres, including London.

The capital is a good place to start to understand these trends. Domestic migration into and out of London is strongly tied to the housing stock, lifecycle stages and income groups, and because the domestic flows are enormous (about 10% of total population in average year), their social effects are important. London has always had the largest number of BME people in the UK, and the largest proportion in some of its inner boroughs (Newham was 72% BME in the 2011 Census). At the same time, outer London has historically had far fewer BME people, with Havering being over 95% white as recently as 2001. 

Looking at recent data from ONS, we can see how this is now changing. Of the seven London boroughs with the largest BME populations in 2001, six have seen their share of the white population increase since 2011. This includes both Newham and Brent, the first boroughs to become so-called ‘majority minority’ in 2001, and that were around 70% non-white by 2011. However, between 2012 and 2017, ONS Annual Population Survey suggests that their white populations have increased from 26% to 32% and from 30% to 37% respectively. In Lambeth and Haringey the white population was larger in 2017 than in 2001, while the white populations have also increased in Tower Hamlets, Harrow, Hackney, Waltham Forest, Lewisham, Camden, Westminster, Barnet, Merton in the more recent 2012-2017 period.

What does this mean? First, that there is no such thing as a ‘no go’ area in London, to which white people won’t or don’t move. This idea was never taken seriously by people familiar with London or the data. A more serious argument was that there might be a ‘tipping point’ beyond which white people would no longer choose to move into an area at the same time that ‘white flight’ would move from a trickle to a flood, leaving areas with few white people left in them.

In London this argument has always been overstated, not least as most population movement into and out of London follows life cycle changes, as it has for decades. That is, many Londoners leave the city to attend university, move back to the city in their 20s, and then leave the city in their 30s when they have children. A similar phenomenon is characteristic of non-Londoners, who often move to the city for a few years in their 20s, both for economic and social reasons, but again leave the city by their 30s. So the story of London is perhaps better characterised as ‘parental flight’ than ‘white flight’ if we’re looking for a slightly imprecise shorthand.

With that important caveat in mind, it is worth looking more closely at the evidence of ethnic change in London. That the boroughs with the highest BME populations (70%) – Newham and Brent – have seen their white population increase throws serious empirical doubt on whether any ‘tipping point’ beyond which white people won’t move to an area, at least for London.

There are some important qualifiers to this conclusion. First is that ‘white’ in the ONS dataset includes ‘white other’. In London in 2011 the ‘white other’ population was nearly 15% of the city’s overall population, and it is possible that the increase of white people in inner London boroughs may be because newer white European migrants are replacing older BME migrants and their children, especially in neighbourhoods that have seen a lot of churn of migrants historically. Given the lower numbers of EU migration in the past few years, this is unlikely to explain all of the growth in white population in London boroughs, but it is likely a contributing factor.

Second is that in some local authorities the increase in white populations may not simply be a sign of greater inter-ethnic harmony, and more related to ‘gentrification’. We must be cautious in simplifying too much that all new white residents in Lambeth or Hackney are better off, but it is plausible that some of the demographic change we’re seeing in inner London is as much about the increased sorting by wealth in more and more neighbourhoods. Given that wealth inequalities track racial inequalities, it is plausible that ‘gentrification’ or even ‘social cleansing’ explains some of the increase in white populations in inner-city  boroughs.

Even as the inner London BME population has stalled or even (slightly) declined, proportionally, the BME population of outer London boroughs has increased, in some cases quite rapidly. Between 2001 and 2011 this was most notable in Barking and Dagenham and in Redbridge, and more recently data points to similar trends in Sutton and Hillingdon. Even in Bromley, Bexley and Havering there has been significant growth in the BME population, from over 90-95% white in 2001 to around 80-85% in 2017. In fact there is a strong trend of stabilisation in many London boroughs, and in the capital overall: from 40% BME in 2012 to 41% BME in 2017.

This relatively slow growth of 1% over 5 years perhaps implies that London will never become a ‘majority minority’ city, or only by, say, 2050. Much will depend, obviously, on international migration flows, on how far ‘gentrification’ trends continue, as well as how far racial inequalities of income and wealth are tackled in coming years. The 2011 Census offered a further hint of the slowing pace of change, with the 25-29 year population being only as diverse as the 40-44 year population (both 40% BME). While the 16-17 year population (i.e. born in 1994-5) was the first ‘majority minority’ cohort at 52% BME, the 0-4 year old population (born in 2007-2011) was again barely more diverse at 53% BME. Projecting these children forward, and assuming the median Londoner’s age remains around 40 years old, it is not hard to imagine that London will still be majority white until 2040 or beyond.

So far this analysis has focused on London. This is partly because the largest BME population lives in the capital, making data analysis somewhat more reliable, but partly because London’s developments often hint at wider demographic change across the country. For example, as the BME population has become more evenly spread within London, so too is it becoming more evenly spread across Britain. Every region in England, as well as Wales and Scotland, are now at least 5% BME, compared to 2% in the least diverse regions less than twenty years ago. More regions are now also 10% BME, a population share that two or three decades ago would have only been seen in larger cities but that is now common in all sorts of towns across the country.

Looking ahead to 2021 and beyond, these trends are likely to continue. London may become more diverse, but not as quickly as over the 1980s and 1990s, in part, perhaps ironically, because white Britons, especially younger ones, themselves now value and want to live in ‘diverse neighbourhoods’. In many ways then, the trends are very positive, in terms of attitudinal changes, indicating a protection from US-style ‘segregation’, and so better social mixing and ‘integration’ or ‘cohesion’.

At the same time there are also concerns. There is increasing and louder noises about the inherent ‘threat’ of a rising ethnic minority population, and the deliberate stirring up of grievances against minorities merely for moving into a neighbourhood. These global trends obviously create barriers for people to live well together locally, and can even lead to violence.

Furthermore Britain still remains far too slow and cautious in responding to racial inequalities. It is important not to pretend that increased white populations in neighbourhoods is always a sign of social mixing, especially given existing socio-economic inequalities. For many the experience of gentrification is not just one of being alienated from the shops, bars, cafes and street culture of where you grew up, but also a sign that racial and class discrimination and inequality still isn’t being tackled.

A final and longstanding problem is Britain’s uneven regional economic growth and output. This is already a major source of disadvantage and understandable source of resentment. As ethnic minorities move into these areas, it will be even more crucial to address economic underperformance and underinvestment, but also the lack of institutional power or decision-making and of wider representation outside of London, whether in terms of politics, media or culture.

Forecasting the future is always a risky proposition. However, the growth and dispersal of Britain’s BME population is one trend that will continue over the coming decades, and there are no signs that this is causing any negative response from white population – if anything the evidence is the reverse. How we respond to the growth of the BME population, taking advantage of its many opportunities as well as responding better to the challenges of division, racism and inequality, will be a major test for Britain’s success in the 21st century.

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