Ethnic segregation in England and Wales is on the wane as more people live alongside neighbours of different backgrounds, creating “rainbow” towns and cities, research reveals.
Neighbourhood diversity more than doubled nationally between 2001 and 2021, with huge transformations in some places. There was close to a tenfold increase in diversity in Boston, Lincolnshire, albeit from a low base; Barking and Dagenham recorded a ninefold increase, while diversity in Watford and Reading increased fourfold.
Newham was the most blended place and outside London the most diverse areas were Slough, Luton, Birmingham and Leicester. The trend has been charted by a team of international population geographers crunching the latest 2021 census data on ethnicity and using a “diversity index” that ranks places by the spread of different ethnic groups represented.
When first released in November the raw census data sparked headlines about the first “minority majority” towns and cities and an erroneous claim from Nigel Farage that “London, Manchester and Birmingham are now all minority white cities”. The new analysis argues these places are better understood as highly ethnically diverse, home to sizeable proportions of people from many ethnic groups rather than single dominant communities.
However, it does not explore how far increased diversity means access to better education, health or housing for minority ethnic people and further research is planned on “the differing – and persistently unequal – neighbourhood experiences of people from different ethnic backgrounds”.
In the meantime, the new study shows that across England and Wales, fewer neighbourhoods than ever show low levels of ethnic diversity while the number of neighbourhoods with “very high levels of diversity” rose from 342 (1%) in 2001 to 2,201 in 2021 (6%).
Part of the effect is down to a decline of 1.1 million in the white British population and increase of 8.7 million in all other ethnicities over the past 20 years.
“But it is not solely a function of white British decline,” said Gemma Catney, population geographer at Queen’s University Belfast and a co-author of the study. “We do see growing diversity and spread. There is a broader rainbow of different ethnic groups represented across districts than ever before.”
The researchers found that by far the greatest number of neighbourhoods with high levels of ethnic diversity are in large cities, particularly in London, but also Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Cardiff, Nottingham and Southampton.
But there were large proportional changes in diversity in areas such as Boston and South Holland in Lincolnshire and Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, where many migrant workers arrived after EU enlargement in 2004.
“A lot of communities have come and gone,” said Paul Skinner, the leader of Boston council. “The rate of change has made some people uncomfortable, but it is a question of embracing the differences.”
He remarked that the police force had become more diverse and said that while there were still “tensions”, “I am hopeful people will embrace the good things that come with it.”
Across England and Wales in the past decade, the greatest reductions in segregation were experienced by the Black African and Black Caribbean ethnic groups. White segregation from minority groups also declined.
Over the past 30 years, the largest proportional decline in residential segregation was for the Black African group, with Bangladeshi, Black Caribbean and Indian ethnic groups also experiencing large decreases in neighbourhood residential segregation.
The places with the lowest diversity index rating were Allerdale and Copeland in Cumbria, the Staffordshire Moorlands, Redcar and Cleveland and Anglesey. In each of these at least 96% of the population was white British in the 2021 census.