Professor Richard Webber 14 March 2017

Insights, changing population and growth

The growing diversity of the British population is experienced quite differently by different councils, even in London. This was clear from a recent visit to Bexleyheath, where the London Borough of Bexley’s offices are located.

Origins software gives us the data to track this diversity and how it is changing in real time. It is a powerful tool that helps to inform strategies around cohesion and a range of service areas.

Many would be surprised to find that in much of inner London, the population that is non-white British has stabilised. Since 2011, in Westminster it has increased by 3% and in Camden by over 1%. Hackney, Islington, Southwark and Tower Hamlets are inner London boroughs where it has grown by less than 1%, much less than the natural increase.

The pattern in outer London in the reverse. Bexley’s white British population has fallen by 5%, a proportion exceeded by Enfield, Greenwich, Harrow, Hillingdon, Hounslow and Redbridge.

The walk from Bexleyheath station to the council offices is through what in the Mosaic classification would be described as 'Pebble Dash Subtopia', generally well-maintained terraces of inter war, owner occupied housing. Originally built for white collar workers in intermediate administrative occupations, to the visitor its physical appearance and demographics may seem little changed since it was built in the 1920s and 1930s.

Today this is changing. Mid-afternoon shoppers in Bexleyheath centre observe that a high proportion of the children who emerge from local schools are from Black African and West Indian communities, many of them from other boroughs. Their aspirational parents have chosen Bexley on account of its schools’ educational standards.

During the period 2011 – 2016 a quarter of the increase in Bexley’s non-white population is accounted for by people with Nigerian names. This community has traditionally established itself in south east London but, as a result of increased rents and house prices closer to central London, is progressively moving out along the corridor formed by the south bank of the Thames, from Deptford to Woolwich, thence to Thamesmead and now Belvedere and Erith.

Bexley’s other rapidly growing community is South Asians and more particularly Sikhs. Across Britain as a whole it is in the Mosaic group 'Suburban Mindsets' that the Sikh population has grown fastest since 2011. This evidently is a form of housing, and one that Bexleyheath has in abundance, that the Sikh culture finds particularly attractive.

For the council a growth in five years in the non-white British population from 18.6% to 23.7% is a challenge that requires adaptation. Officers feel they have anecdotal evidence of the nature of this change, but find it difficult to back up personal opinions with up-to-date information below the level of the borough as a whole.

Officers believe the cultural practices specific to Nigerians and Sikhs are particularly relevant to educational services and to the operation of both adult and children’s social services. On the basis of our experience we believe they will also find them relevant to leisure services and waste disposal.

By December 2018 Canary Wharf will be within eleven minutes of Abbey Wood, on the northern edge of the borough, and an estimated 6,000 additional commuters will use Crossrail each day to make this journey.

What will be the effect of this new transport infrastructure on the size or profile of the minority population of the northern part of the borough? Will Crossrail attract a new, more ethnically diverse but higher income population to the borough’s northern fringes? And will the resulting increase in house prices drive existing minority communities further away from central London, to Dartford and beyond? What types of new-build will be looked for by this new population and how should their preferences be reflected in the planning policies for Thamesmead and Belvedere in particular?

Bexley is a borough that takes these challenges seriously and has a track record of investing in the insight necessary to properly inform policy responses. There is tremendous opportunity in the potential for growth in the area and a determination to make it count for residents old and new.

Professor Richard Webber is co-founder Webber Phillips.


Comment from Cllr Teresa O’Neill, leader of Bexley Council:

Many of Bexley’s settled communities originated from inner London - moving out for schools, jobs and often for larger homes with gardens. We need to consider this as we plan for Bexley’s next stage of growth.

How do we create communities, and even whole new towns in the case of Thamesmead, where people will choose to make their home?

Our partnership with Peabody and other regional and local partners are key to this. But so is the insight we gather from existing communities and prospective communities about the type of housing, jobs and amenities they want. All of this will help us shape Bexley to be a place where people want to settle and where they can become part of supportive and thriving communities.

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