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At the Barking Road Community Centre in Plaistow, dancers sway and twirl to calypso beats. If the music hints at the centre’s past as an Afro-Caribbean club, the mix of elderly boppers suggest how the composition of this pocket of east London is changing. As well as women with Nigerian and Jamaican heritage, there are those with roots in India, Pakistan, Colombia, Poland and the Philippines. They show why Plaistow is the clearest example of what researchers describe as London’s “super-diversity”.
“If London is the most diverse city in the world, and Plaistow is the most diverse part of the city, Plaistow might be the most diverse place in the world,” says Forhad Hussain, a local councillor. When Hussain came to the area in 1983 with his Bangladeshi-born parents, this part of the city was mostly white and working-class, home to dockers and their families who had stayed put as Plaistow was rebuilt after the devastation wrought by the Blitz.
A few St George’s crosses can still be spotted in the windows of terraced houses or tower blocks, but the English-born population is on the wane. As late as 2001, 62.2 per cent of Plaistow residents were born in England, according to census data provided by Newham council. A decade later, that share had fallen to 47.3 per cent. (Across the capital, 61.1 cent of Londoners were born in England, according to the most recent census.)
But whereas other parts of London, such as Tower Hamlets, have come to be associated with a particular ethnic group, in that case people of Bangladeshi origin, Plaistow and the borough of Newham in which it sits have attained perhaps unprecedented pluralism. It is at the forefront of a broader trend. Diversity in the capital is no longer defined by pockets of large, isolated ethnic groups but by more mixing and less segregation.
“We have every race, every colour, every creed,” says Justin Pereira, a deputy director at Newham University Hospital, which employs translators who in total speak more than 130 languages. Plaistow North is the most diverse ward (the standard sub-unit of local government represented by at least one councillor) in England and Wales and Plaistow South, the other ward in the 32,000-person area, is also in the top 10, according to the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (Code), a network of academics.
A 2013 Code paper on the borough of Newham found that no single ethnic group accounts for more than a fifth of the population of Plaistow North. The Bangladeshi group is the largest (17 per cent), followed by white British (16 per cent), African (14 per cent), other white (10 per cent), Indian (10 per cent), Pakistani (7 per cent), other Asian (6 per cent) and Caribbean (6 per cent). “Other whites” are typically from eastern Europe, while “other Asians” are largely from the Philippines.
While Plaistow’s “super-diversity” is greater than in other parts of the capital, 23 of London’s 33 boroughs are “plural” in that no single ethnic group is in the majority, according to Code research by the University of Manchester and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published in 2013. Two of the other three local authorities that are “plural” are within 35 miles of central London: Slough and Luton. (Leicester is the third.) And yet this diversity has not, on the whole, come at the cost of greater segregation, says Ludi Simpson, professor of population studies at Manchester. People from different ethnic minorities are more likely to live near each other than a decade ago, and more are intermarrying and having children of mixed ethnicity.
The corollary of pluralism has been a decline in the share of the white British population in Plaistow and London. Reports of “white flight” require context. White Britons are still the biggest single group in all but two boroughs. Some white Britons may have moved because they did not like the diversity of their areas but many others have chosen to do so because they simply wanted a bigger house and a quiet life. Seaside towns in Kent and Essex are replete with self-confessed “DFLs”: down from London. There is nothing particularly “white” about this trend: longer-established minorities are also moving from places such as Plaistow to outer suburbs, which are also becoming more diverse.
Plaistow’s “super diversity” might be expected to have weakened community ties. In his work on the US, Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard University, argues that more diversity encourages people to “hunker down” and reduces social solidarity. Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence party, as well as several Conservative ministers, have made similar arguments for curbs on immigration into the UK.
The recent history of Plaistow suggests a different story. Nine in 10 Newham residents told a recent council-commissioned survey that they get on well with fellow residents. About half of those surveyed by Ipsos Mori, the polling company, said that more than half of their friends come from a different ethnic background to them. When the London riots hit in the summer of 2011, there were few incidents in Plaistow. Hussain says that while the area is far from perfect he has personally never experienced any discrimination or racism.
In a study published in 2013, a team led by Patrick Sturgis, professor of research methodology at the University of Southampton, tried to find out whether, if living in a diverse neighbourhood did lead to mutual distrust, that was happening in London, arguably the most ethnically diverse city on the planet. Using public attitude surveys by the Metropolitan Police, London’s police force, the researchers concluded that “residents of more ethnically diverse neighbourhoods actually reported higher levels of community cohesion than those who lived in less diverse areas, once levels of economic deprivation and segregation were controlled for”. Indeed, in the super-diverse parts of London, greater difference seems to encourage cohesion.
Academics do not know why this might be the case, but Plaistow offers some support for two of the reasons suggested by Sturgis’s team.
The first is that where there is plenty of contact between people from different backgrounds, there is less friction. Distrust is fostered when diversity exists alongside isolated and segregated communities. Plaistow is not a cosmopolitan paradise but civic leaders try to promote contact. The Barking Road Community Centre was once called the Newham African Caribbean Resource Centre (and is still run by a body of that name) but two years ago, encouraged by the council, it dropped the suggestion of exclusivity from its title.
“This was hard to do internally,” says its general manager, David Idiabana, whose parents came to London from Nigeria, “but we can’t be insular. Change is never easy.” Institutions such as community centres or youth clubs should not be for one ethnic group, says Syed Haque, community neighbourhoods manager for Plaistow, but places where different groups can mix. Young people are also more likely to see diversity as a positive thing, according to research by Code. About half of Plaistow residents are under 30 years old, whereas the median age for the UK is 40.
The other reason cohesion and super-diversity can go together in both Plaistow in London is because, for all its inequality, the capital remains a place of jobs and opportunity. As a comprehensive 2012 study for the Migration Advisory Committee found, deprivation is usually the primary cause of ethnic tension in areas of high diversity. Plaistow, while it remains one of the poorer areas of London, is growing. It is not a place where people are trapped; every year one-third of the names on the electoral roll changes, says one councillor.
As costs rise elsewhere in London, Plaistow is becoming a place people not only use as a springboard but also a landing pad. House prices rose faster in Newham than in any other borough last year, according to Land Registry data. The stadium of the local football team, West Ham United, will be converted into flats when the “Hammers” move to the nearby Olympic stadium. How to afford to stay in the area is the number one issue at councillors’ surgeries. This suggests that while the rest of London is becoming more like Plaistow, Plaistow is also becoming more like the rest of London.