It’s time to question the assumption that living in mixed communities improves life chances
These are interesting times for social housing. Two foundations of the sector - affordability and security of tenure - are being questioned and will likely be subject to radical change. One thing everyone involved in the sector seems to agree on, however, is that we need ‘mixed’ and ‘balanced’ communities.
It is a view that transcends political divides. The assumption is that there is a ‘community effect’ (as Professor John Hills called it) in deprived areas and that people living in those communities are disadvantaged as a result, possibly because of a lack of good adult role models, peer influence and isolation from job-finding networks.
The solution that is always proposed is to provide mixed-tenure housing. But what mix? When do you achieve balance? And crucially, where is the evidence?
There are good studies that have tested this assumption. One of the most comprehensive was carried out by the Journal of Economic Geography in 2009. It conducted longitudinal research comparing a population (the whole of Scotland) in 1991 with the same population in 2001 using the census data.
They broke Scotland down into neighbourhood areas with populations of more than 500 and categorised them by tenure mix. They measured the number of people unemployed and employed in each year and controlled the comparison for a range of other factors, such as education and tenure.
They found that there was no ‘neighbourhood effect’, so living in mixed-tenure housing did not affect tenants’ chance of finding work one way or another.
Research from the Spatial Economics Research Centre in 2010 considered the impact of bad neighbourhoods on education outcomes. It found no evidence for ‘negative short-term effects’ and suggested that the ‘underachievement of pupils who moved into social housing neighbourhoods cannot be causally linked to place characteristics during the formative teenage years’.
With all this academic evidence, why is there not at least a policy debate rather than the unquestioned consensus that mixed communities are key to tackling deprivation?
I suspect it has a lot to do with the extent to which housing policy is driven by politics. Mixed communities ‘sounds’ right, and what sounds right often carries the day in politics.
At a time when we are having to make crucial decisions about the sector, should we not take a step back and apply some methodological rigour and science to the problems we face, without letting politics get in the way?
We have big decisions to make about social housing and our purpose in providing it. Let’s think about them first.
John Schofield is director of research and development at Family Mosaic