Peter Matthews argues that poverty and affluence are two sides of the same coin. One would not exist without the other – and both can be found concentrated in areas of extremes.

A dangerous concentration of affluence? Image: Herry Lawford, CC BY-SA

A dangerous concentration of affluence? Image: Herry Lawford, CC BY-SA

In this article he identifies how, when trying to create a better social mix, the focus is almost always on deprived areas and asks “Aren’t the posh bits a problem too?”

This article was first published in the UK edition of The Conversation

A recent investigation by Guardian writer Aditya Chakrabortty into the renewal of the Woodberry Down Estate in north-east London highlighted what many rightly perceive as state-led gentrification. An area of predominantly social housing is demolished, replaced with a mixed-tenure community, with a net reduction in the numbers of social housing units and an increase in rents. These developments intend to, and do, push the poor and marginalised out of our cities.

At the core of these regeneration initiatives is the rosy image of a “mixed community” summed up in post-war Labour minister Aneurin Bevan’s image of council housing creating “the living tapestry of a mixed community” where “the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street”. Implicitly this also includes the idea that where you live affects your outcomes later in life – that there are so-called neighbourhood effects. Basically, this is the idea that living in a neighbourhood surrounded by poor people lowers your own chances of escaping poverty.

The problem is, there’s not much evidence neighbourhood effects exist, particularly in the UK. What proof there is is certainly not strong enough to justify the costs of displacing entire communities and then reducing social housing coverage. The blind acceptance of mixed communities as a good thing in policy also ignores why deprived neighbourhoods emerged in the first place and why they persist.

Housing creates deprivation

Social housing in the UK is now a last resort, and therefore it is those in greatest need who end up accepting tenancies. As we have historically put all our social housing together, this means we create persistently deprived neighbourhoods. In this basic sense, creating mixed communities through regeneration policies will reduce neighbourhood deprivation, as the more affluent homeowners move into an area and poorer social tenants move out.

Accepting that it is largely the housing market and housing policy decisions that create deprived neighbourhoodsdoes not necessarily mean we should halt regeneration, of course, or even that we should stop neighbourhood mixing. In numerous cases, demolishing and rebuilding housing has dramatically improved things.

For instance, we know that in the UK neighbourhood effects do exist in the provision of services to deprived areas, such as the lack of street cleaners or the persistence of the inverse care law which states that good medical care tends be most available to those who need it least. Often, this is simply a product of the policymakers’ prejudices. Neighbourhood renewal and improvement, including the introduction of various tenancies and therefore a degree of social mix, may improve these problems.

However, more problematically, the lazy assumption in policy and wider society that deprived neighbourhoods cause poverty – that they are to blame for their own problems – obscures the basic arithmetic fact that neighbourhoods of concentrated deprivation only exist because we allow neighbourhoods of concentrated affluence to also exist. Woodberry Down and many other estates across the country can be demolished and lives disturbed because we ignore the affluence in our midst.

To go back to basic arithmetic, unless substantially fewer people come to require social housing (which given growing in-work poverty and housing waiting lists is highly unlikely), then we will have to maintain or increase the supply of it. If we are demolishing social housing to create “mixed neighbourhoods” while reducing the number of homes, then the new homes will have to go somewhere else.

Yet the idea that we must demolish large areas of high-value owner-occupied housing and replace it with high density, socially-rented housing is still way off the agenda. Maybe it is time this changed. If we really do want to mix communities, where better to start than in west London, in the decidedly unmixed Belgravia (average house price £4.4m)?

Of course, such a move is unlikely to happen any time soon. The powers that be tend to live in such areas, after all, and are unlikely to appreciate the deliberate urban degeneration.

Move the poor to the posh areas?

A less physically radical intervention would be to remove the subsidy from the house itself (in the form of low rents) and give it to the tenant in the form of a housing voucher. But even here the results are mixed. A similar scheme in the US found people who used vouchers to move to the most affluent neighbourhoods experienced some of the worst outcomes and intense feelings of dislocation and inferiority around their new affluent neighbours. This supports other evidence from mixed urban regeneration schemes that shows poorer households are often frustrated that their new neighbours will not interact with them.

In any case, the political furore around housing benefit and the implementation of the “bedroom tax” and benefits cap, suggest that such a voucher scheme is unlikely to be sustainable, financially or politically.

It seems that if we want to improve housing and neighbourhoods, while at the same time delivering more social housing and improving individual outcomes, then focusing on turning deprived areas into mixed communities is not the way to go.

If we are to demolish places like Woodberry Down to improve housing quality then it should be with a like-for-like replacement of social housing units. To improve neighbourhoods in the longer term and have an impact on peoples’ lives, then we need to invest in services in the most deprived neighbourhoods and make more of them into escalators for people to move through as their lives change.

Peter Matthews is a lecturer at Heriot Watt University’s School of the Built Environment.

Follow him @urbaneprofessor