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Last Updated: Monday, 4 September 2006, 12:47 GMT 13:47 UK
So who's right over segregation?
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News

Bradford race riots
Segregation problems have been highlighted since the 2001 riots

The belief that Britain's communities are becoming more racially mixed is once again being challenged by Dr Mike Poulsen, who says he has new evidence to show segregation is on the rise.

Last year Dr Mike Poulsen, an approachable and plain-speaking academic based in Australia, sparked a media frenzy after declaring Britain's ethnic minorities and white population were becoming more segregated.

His research into 16 towns and cities saying people were living increasingly apart provoked a backlash from other academics.

'Sleepwalking' claim

Within weeks however, Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, warned Britain was "sleepwalking towards segregation", predicting racially-divided ghettoes as seen in American cities.

Dr Mike Poulsen
Do I have sympathy with Trevor Phillips? If you think that segregation is not increasing, then surely that is sleepwalking
Dr Mike Poulsen
In the nervous atmosphere of a country where many people are not quite sure what to make anymore of immigration and multiculturalism, Dr Poulsen's research was timely - even though he says he has no political axe to grind.

Last week, Dr Poulsen returned to defend his work and to reveal more findings before his fellow researchers at the Royal Geographical Society.

Speaking to the BBC, he said that if we are going to understand whether or not we are segregated, we have to have a reality check over the shape of modern Britain.

"I have been trying to get people to look at areas and the mix of people to see what is going on in a modern multicultural country," says the academic based at Macquarie University in Sydney.

"The traditional way of measuring segregation is fine for looking at the USA when we are talking about segregation between white and black neighbourhoods.

"But this is hopeless in a multicultural environment. You are talking about a far greater range of people. The problem is that a lot of academics have a lot of capital invested in these methods."

'White flight myth'

And it's these academics that Dr Poulsen - and by extension Trevor Phillips who continues to liberally quote the research - find themselves up against.

Three of the top British thinkers in the field, Professor Ceri Peach at Oxford, Dr Ludi Simpson at Manchester and Professor Danny Dorling at Sheffield have maintained in different ways that segregation is, at most, stable or declining.

East Ham
Stonebridge, Brent
Segregation means residential separation between white and non-white people. Data calculated by Dr Mike Poulsen
Within two months of Trevor Phillips' speech, Dr Simpson, an expert on Bradford's Asian communities, published research saying Britain is experiencing more racial mixing - and that "white flight" was a myth.

What in fact is happening in many areas, he says, is that the non-white population is growing naturally - young immigrants become families and have children. This, he says is not the same as saying that ethnic minorities shun the rest of society - or that white people are running away.

What's more, he argues, is that more and more ethnic minorities can be found in leafier suburbs. They choose the more expensive areas - and schools - as they can afford to.

"It's the same as what happened before with Irish and Jewish people," says Dr Simpson.

But Dr Poulsen says historic comparisons do not explain what is happening today.

In his new research, he has taken 27 London wards where more than 50% of residents were non-white in 1991. He then looked at data from the 2001 census.

If they were becoming less segregated, he argues, then the ethnic balance in each ward would have tipped towards the city's average of 25% non-white residents.

We have to got to recognise that while there have been huge benefits [from multiculturalism], there are also tensions created
Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly

"In fact they didn't," he says. "In all but one of the wards they showed increasing segregation.

"But what we also saw was that it was more complex. An Indian area wasn't becoming more Indian - it was seeing other minorities arrive and the whites disappearing. That is not mixing. In anyone's language that is segregation."

But is any of this actually important?

Last month, Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly established a Commission on Integration and Cohesion, acknowledging that there needed to be a long, hard look at Britain's ability to create an ethnically diverse but cohesive society.

For some academics like Dr Simpson, focusing the debate on ethnicity misses the point.

"What's important for policy is whether the housing or labour market helps mixing and chances in life - that is where our research should be focused," he says.

"We need to be looking at poor housing or poor life chances - the colour of an area does not tell you very much. We accept that colour does not tell us much about people - we should accept it for areas too."

But Dr Poulsen says we do need to take account of how ethnic mixing and integration works.

"Do I have sympathy with Trevor Phillips? If you think that segregation is not increasing, then surely that is sleepwalking. Segregation is normal and expected in a multicultural society.

"If there are obstacles in the way [for instance schools that fail to help children from immigrant families] then you delay the time it takes to achieve equality.

"It may take three, four or more generations."

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