How do local authorities deal with the increasing diversity of their clients and residents?

Ben Gidley

In the 1890s, philanthropist Charles Booth and a team of assistants – the pioneers of sociological research in the UK – walked the whole of London, visually noting the wealth of each street’s inhabitants, to construct their Maps Descriptive of London Poverty. The maps coded streets by colour, with scarlet red and gold marking the “well-to-do” and the “wealthy”, dark blue and black representing the “casual poor” in “chronic want” and the

“vicious and semi-criminal” “lowest class”. Southwark, just across the Thames from the City of London, was a mass of dark colours.

A hundred years later, the New Labour government created an Index of Multiple Deprivation to map new forms of poverty, dark blue for most deprived and gold for least. Again, the northern wards of Southwark were swathed in darkness, with the area around Elephant and Castle especially dark blue.


More recently, the estate agents Savills has produced a different map of London, with dark blue representing areas where house prices were declining, and Booth’s scarlet red now used to mark zones moving “upmarket”. This time, in what the Economist called “the great inversion”, the former dark zones of Southwark had become vivid red property hotspots.

Elephant and Castle, in the heart of this area, exemplifies London’s sharp changes: commercial student housing, warehousing study migrants from the rising powers of Eastern Asia; luxury pied a terres in developments in a rebranded “South Central” quarter; social housing redevelopments that result in the decanting of long-term residents out to London’s far suburbs; a growing hub for Latin American enterprise.

Super-diversity at the local level

Elephant and Castle is also the site of a COMPAS project, Welfare, neighbourhood and new geographies of diversity. This project, along with an ESRC Knowledge Exchange Fellowship, were the source for February’s COMPAS Breakfast Briefing, presented by my COMPAS colleague Mette Louise Berg and me. We asked “How do local authorities deal with the increasing diversity of their clients and residents?” The Powerpoint presentation is online, and podcast and summary are coming soon.


Mette opened by describing the concept of “super-diversity” at the heart of our project, the intensifying diversity of forms of difference concentrated in one place, as defined by COMPAS founder Stephen Vertovec. Vertovec’s work has opened up a research agenda that I have been pursuing with Nando Sigona, Mette Berg and other colleagues in the last half decade, with a conference in Oxford, a workshop in Birmingham, and an edited collection. It also informed a Home Office study on the varying impacts of migration in local areas (subject of a previous Breakfast Briefing by Jon Simmons), which included “super-diverse London” as one of its geographical clusters.

The Welfare, neighbourhood and new geographies of diversity project, which also involves Caroline Oliver, Hiranthi Jayaweera and Rachel Humphris, as well as photographer Simon Rowe, takes this agenda forward by piloting ethnographic research on how diversity is patterned differently at different stages of the life course, and how this impacts on service provision in a super-diverse space.

Understanding Elephant

figure for BB blogpost

My contribution to the Breakfast Briefing was to present detailed census analysis done as part of the project by Anna Krausova, exploring different patterns of diversity across multiple axes of difference in an area circumscribed by a 1 mile radius from Elephant and Castle. Mette then presented some of the findings from the education and housing case studies of our qualitative research.

Mette also described some of the “promising practices” we have seen operating in Southwark – examples of social innovation (partnerships between local authorities and charitable and voluntary sector to develop areas, long-term bottom-up approaches, building inclusion, skills, and relationships), as well as promising practices in schools (seeing languages and diversity as a positive resource, celebrating diversity as well as emphasizing shared values across faiths and cultures rather than taking an either/or approach, and support for home-school support workers) and in housing (tenant management organisations, sports projects and community gardens). One of the key promising practices in schools was the development of “an ethos of inclusion”, which nurtures all children, regardless of their ethnicity, immigration status or other markers of difference. (These findings resonate with promising practices identified by our colleague Ole Jensen in COMPAS’ Upstream project on municipal integration strategies in education and social cohesion.)

Finally, Mette summed up five key findings of the research.

  • Inequality, deprivation and poverty constitute more of a challenge to service delivery than “diversity” understood as “ethnic diversity”. Inequality is exacerbated by central government cuts to funding and restructuring as service delivery becomes patchy and fragmented, creating greater risks to resilience at a local level.
  • Diversity is differently patterned across age groups, which means there are different implications for different areas of service delivery, which will change slowly over time as demographic ripples pass through the population. Schools already have significant expertise and experience in dealing with super-diversity, for example, but elder care less so. (Again, this resonates with the Upstream project, which has found that super-diversity is already mainstream in education contexts even in areas of relatively new diversity.)
  • Broad brush approach to minorities is not very helpful; it is important to understand needs of “hidden communities” and micro-populations.
  • Developing a reflective style of working is vital in context of rapid change. Frontline staff and middle managers often accumulate rich, grounded understandings of their areas over time, which are important in service delivery in super-diverse contexts. Excessive institutional restructuring and staff turnover can be detrimental to this as, making local authorities less able to support resilient communities.
  • Different areas of policy are linked; changes in one area can have impacts in others. For example, what happens in the housing domain impacts on a school’s ability to recruit and retain teachers as well as on the composition of the pupil population.

Community nodes

IMG_3577_RESPECCTEXISTENCEOREXPECTRESISTANCEThe discussion after the briefing focused on three big issues. Participants spoke about what a “reflective style of working” might look like, and how this can be better promoted and supported in local authorities – as well as how vulnerable it is in a time of cut-backs. Relatedly, participants discussed how local authorities can combine informal and formal modes of engagement. Key individuals in different populations come to act as “community nodes” – opening doors for local authorities who manage to identify and engage with them, but also acting as gate-keepers in ways that can silence the most marginal voices.

Participants spoke about how local authorities and researchers can better work with data to understand different sorts of hidden communities, including how we can better use the knowledges held by reflective staff in local authorities and the voluntary sector. IMG_3524_CHANGEISHERENOWOften, qualitative data is dismissed as “anecdotal” and “unrepresentative”, thus missing the rich insights it generates. Arguably, this final point shows the need for on-going partnerships between researchers – and particularly ethnographers – and local stakeholders.

We are seeking funding to deepen the research in Elephant, as well as writing a series of working papers and articles on the work we have done so far – so watch this space!