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The divided kingdom?

Producer, BBC Radio 4's More or Less

Terraced houses
Are we living in a more polarised society?

BBC Radio 4's More or Less was broadcast on Thursday, 5 February, 2004 at 1500 GMT.

Are we becoming a segregated nation?

Recent work on census data suggests that Britain is steadily dividing.

Whether we're young or old, married or unmarried, rich or poor, white or non-white, we seem to find ourselves living increasingly with people more like us, and apart from those who are different.

Across Britain, each social category is forming hundreds or thousands of clusters.

On election night in 1997, the new Prime Minister Tony Blair said: "Above all, we have secured a mandate to bring this nation together, to unite us.

"One Britain, one nation in which our ambition for ourselves is matched by our sense of compassion and decency and duty towards other people. Simple values, but the right ones."

In fact, according to Danny Dorling and Phil Rees, geographers at Sheffield and Leeds universities respectively, in many ways quite the opposite has happened.

In BBC Radio 4's More or Less this week, we devoted the programme to their findings which suggest that differences between our circumstances in life are being increasingly set in bricks and mortar, becoming part of the geography.

Moving home

The trend didn't begin with Labour in 1997. It was clear in the 1980s and has simply continued, slower in some respects, faster in others.

It's estimated that in order to mix us up again to the same extent that we were socially mixed in 1991, a million people would have to move home.

There is continued polarisation of whites and non-whites

The most difficult to interpret is the data on ethnic origin.

For a start, there are problems with some of the census definitions over the years making some comparisons difficult.

But there does seem to be evidence that although most ethnic groups appear to be more mixed than before, there is continued polarisation of whites and non-whites.

Although the percentages are small, Danny Dorling says the absolute numbers are enormous-630,000 whites would have to move house to restore the evenness of distribution of this group to what it was in 1991.

We don't know if this has happened because people are moving for racial reasons, or if that's just the consequence of decisions taken for economic reasons.

Bucking the trend

As fewer non-white people have high incomes, it might be that it is not the white flight sometimes referred to, but just an effect of the income distribution.

But whatever its cause, it produces a real change.

There are some places which buck the trends elsewhere

Only the computerisation of the census in the last three decades makes possible the large scale statistical comparisons using data from individual neighbourhoods which reveal these trends.

To some, they will be confirmation of the obvious. To others they may defy their own experience.

There are some places which buck the trends-London for example, appears to have little of the white/non-white polarisation observed elsewhere.

What's causing all this polarisation, by wealth, age, marital status, work, race?

So should we be worried?

Will the trends continue or are there reasons why they might reverse?

What will be the consequences if they don't?

Could we do anything about it even if we wanted to?

At BBC Radio 4's More or Less we'd welcome your views, about all these questions and the fundamental one: whether we are indeed seeing a deep and serious shift in the social geography of Britain.

Click here to have your say.

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Producer: Michael Blastland
Editor: Nicola Meyrick

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