Housing, immigration and the attack on multiculturalism

If the Immigration Act addresses who can live in the country, the Housing and Planning Act addresses who can live in particular cities. Together, these two acts will serve as pretext for an acceleration of social cleansing.

Jon Burnett
4 July 2016

Flickr/Darren Johnson. Some rights reserved.

Reinforcing each other, housing and immigration policies facilitate the removal of the poor. Writing in the Sunday Times in January 2016, Prime Minister David Cameron set out proposals to "radically transform" over 100 "sink estates" across the country, pump-priming the planning process through a £140 million fund to support "reconstruction" and in some cases "knock them down and start again". These plans were accompanied by the creation of a new Advisory Panel tasked with "building a list of post-war estates across the country that are ripe for re-development". An Estates Regeneration Strategy promised that it would "sweep away the planning blockages and take new steps to reduce political and reputational risk for projects' key decision-makers and investors". And this presaged a "critical by-product" of the strategy: a report from a property company showing, according to the prime minister, that "regeneration will work best in areas where land values are high".

Around 100,000 people are to be ‘worked with’ under these proposals: from communities depicted by the prime minister as "cut-off, self-governing and divorced from the mainstream", and from areas depicted by him as experiencing the "severe social segregation" which allows "social problems to fester and grow unseen". "Decades of neglect have led to gangs, ghettos and anti-social behaviour", Cameron suggested, and "poverty has become entrenched". Under the government’s self-styled strategy to wage an "all-out assault on poverty and disadvantage" – of which its estates plan is only one part – these are some of the people to be identified, managed and despite assurances to the contrary, if history is a guide, potentially relocated. According to the prime minister, "I believe that together we can tear down anything that stands in our way".

In March this year, the Institute of Race Relations published Entitlement and Belonging, a paper examining two of the pieces of legislation that will support these processes: the Housing and Planning, and Immigration Bills 2015-16. Both of these bills have since received royal assent; and as this research noted, while they have their own trajectories and aims, they share an ideological basis in that they are to be utilised to determine who can live where, on whose terms and under what conditions. Both contain measures which will expand already considerable powers to evict tenants, that will bypass mechanisms of due process by enabling government departments to side-step appeals processes and that, ultimately, will embed poverty and homelessness. Together they will serve as pretext for an acceleration of social cleansing. But they have faced fierce and ongoing resistance. It is from community based movements and the networks of support that have emerged around them that the most coherent analysis of their impacts has emerged. And as they have made clear, if the Immigration Act addresses who can live in the country, the Housing and Planning Act addresses who can live in particular cities.

It is in this context that one of the impacts of these acts will be to contribute to an attack on the lived experiences of multicultural communities. The Immigration Act provides the coup de grace to ongoing attempts to instil immigration control into day-to-day life: landlords required to carry out immigration checks on tenants or face prosecution; banks obligated to carry out immigration checks of potential customers; new criminal offences created of ‘driving whilst undocumented’ and undocumented working (previously a civil offence). This will (re)embed a ‘sus culture’ on British streets as the duty to check immigration status translates into the routine harassment of BAME communities. When the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants carried out an independent evaluation of the ‘right to rent’ scheme within the legislation, it found that 25 per cent of landlords would be less likely to rent to someone with a ‘foreign name’ or a ‘foreign accent’, 42 per cent would be less likely to rent to someone who could not produce a British passport and that checks were being applied against people who ‘appear’ foreign.

The purpose of these and many other measures is to create "a really hostile environment for illegal immigration", according to Theresa May as she announced this as government strategy in 2012. "What we don’t want is a situation where people think that they can come here and overstay because they’re able to access everything they need." But whilst the ‘hostile environment’ has been subjected to significant critique and attention, less has been focused on the way it makes up the corollary of the government’s intensification of a strategy of ‘managed migration’ (the genesis of which lies with New Labour), allocating rights and treatment, in part, on the basis of wealth and ‘suitability’. Around the same time that the Home Secretary announced her aim to turn Britain into a hostile environment, the then immigration minister Damien Green was announcing plans to implement a policy of "super-selectivity", ensuring that Britain only takes the "brightest and best" migrants. Under this doctrine, for example, certain non-EU migrants who fail to earn £35,000 a year after a certain period of time will be deported. Spouses of non-EU migrants earning less than £18,600 will be refused entry. It is a strategy which sees migrants reduced to units of capital or labour, with those deemed unnecessary – especially the poorest – subject to criminalisation and ultimately removal.       

This is the ideological vision that is being mirrored in social policy, and spreading way beyond the field of migration: a combination of officially sanctioned hostility for those who are not seen as ‘fitting’ in a particular locality, in conjunction with clearing the way for those who have the capital to be there. The Housing and Planning Act, as has been well documented, could lead to the eradication of 20,000 council homes a year according to some estimates, accelerating a long-standing form of decimation. Some 60,000 people could be forced from their homes under its ‘pay-to-stay’ provisions; security of tenure has been dealt a fatal blow. According to Architects for Social Housing (ASH), it effectively facilitates a land-grab, "either to transfer public housing into private hands or to free up (…) coveted land for property developers". It contributes to an urban policy which appears to have the dispersal and removal of the poor as one of its aims.

Already evictions are being carried out at record levels in England, with 43,000 people evicted from their homes in 2015, or 170 people per day. As the charity Shelter has shown, these are unevenly geographically distributed; and between October 2013 and September 2014 a staggering 1-in-36 residents in Newham, east London, received possession claims, the highest ratio in the country. This was followed by Barking & Dagenham (1-in-38) and Haringey, Southwark and Waltham Forest (1-in-42 in each area). According to the 2011 census, Newham is also the most ethnically ‘diverse’ area in the country, with 83% of its residents coming from a BAME community. The proportion of residents from BAME communities in the other areas above are 51%, 65%, 60% and 64% respectively.

This is not to suggest, of course, that evictions are only concentrated in areas where ethnic diversity is higher than ‘average’. Nor is it to disregard the ways that the new Housing and Planning Act will have much broader repercussions, which will be felt across multiple communities. But it is to say that with their respective aims of enforcing norms of property ownership, freeing up land for investors, removing some people from certain forms of housing and others from the country, both the Housing and Planning, and the Immigration Acts reinforce an ongoing form of urban restructuring which is ‘reclaiming’ space for cultural and political elites. Summed up by one collective as combining "moving out undesirable humans" with "sanitising and securing the social environment for those who remain", these processes are underpinned by a series of ideological assumptions about ‘who’ belongs in particular localities, with the multicultural poor among those deemed disposable.

Multiculturalism as a supposed ‘doctrine’ has been the subject of resurgent critique since the urban disorders in 2001, when Asian - mainly Muslim - youths fought against the far-Right and the police in dilapidated, post-industrial towns and cities across the north of England. Particularly against the backdrop of the advent of the ‘war on terror’, the idea that multiculturalism leads to social problems has since been normalised. According to a review team appointed by the government after these 2001 disorders, communities were operating "on the basis of a series of parallel lives". And they consequently had to be brought together through the creation of an artificially defined ‘Britishness’ to cohere loyalty. A decade and a half later, a legislative programme is being put in place ensuring that this attack on multiculturalism as ‘doctrine’ translates into an attack on multiculturalism as lived reality.


Part of the Anti-Austerity and Media Activism series.

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