The planning system is perpetuating racial inequality – so what can housing professionals do about it?

In this blog, Amy Bristow (former Oak Foundation research intern at I-SPHERE) discusses new research on the English planning system, drawing on key informant interviews and case studies in Bradford, Harrow, Lambeth, and Lewisham.

Racial inequalities in housing have gained renewed attention against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic. Housing conditions were found to have contributed to the disproportionate burden of infection for BAME households, who were disproportionately likely to live in overcrowded accommodation, making it difficult to shield or self-isolate, and to reside in dense urban areas where COVID-19 was more prevalent.

The planning system is fundamental to the delivery of housing; it was therefore described by one research participant as having ‘untapped potential’ in addressing persistent racial inequalities and meeting the accommodation needs of BAME households. However, there are four key barriers that must be addressed in order to reach this potential:

Firstly, no participants thought that reducing racial inequalities or meeting the housing needs of BAME groups were core aims of planning; indeed, these aims are not included in the National Planning Policy Framework or the 2020 White Paper.

Secondly, forty years of studies around ‘race and planning’ have found planning professionals to be ‘socially conservative’ and unsure of how racial equality issues relate to their work (see RTPI/CRE, 1983; Krishnarayan & Thomas, 1993; Booth et al., 2004). Planners interviewed for our research lacked confidence in this regard, and felt that prioritising certain groups may even undermine the purpose of a planning system which continues to assume formal equality of treatment is sufficient to achieve equal outcomes:

 [T]he local plan is for all of society, and therefore…if it was an explicit aim [to meet BAME housing needs], are we then being seen to not be giving that same sort of weight in relation to other groups..? I think that would potentially be a risk – (Local Stakeholder, Planning, Harrow)

Although some housing professionals interviewed felt that housing strategies did aim to tackle racial inequalities, it became apparent that these objectives were often implicit under broader headings like ‘Homes for All’ or ‘Affordable Housing’. It was therefore acknowledged that awareness of these issues may not be the same amongst all staff:

[B]ecause of… the BAME households who are in temporary accommodation on the waiting list, when we talk about affordable housing, that’s generally who we’re talking about it for, but it’s not expressed in that way… I think we could probably be a bit more explicit… I’m not sure all planning officers get it – (Local Stakeholder, Planning, Lewisham)

Thirdly, there is currently no explicit requirement for local planning authorities to consider the needs of ethnic and/or faith groups when completing their statutory assessment of local housing need. Despite this, the needs of these groups were considered in the respective Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) in three of four case study areas. Nevertheless, this evidence didn’t translate into specific policy, except in Bradford, where such an inclusion was prompted by local BME housing providers during consultation.

We were consulted on the housing strategy…and [the council] had nothing around BME within the original draft… But we managed to get something in there about meeting BME housing need, because we know that the majority of the BME community live in poor-quality, private-rented accommodation – (Local Stakeholder, Housing, Bradford)

Lastly, the research concluded that public consultation opportunities generally reinforce existing unequal power relationships by favouring those with the time, knowledge, and confidence to participate. Much more must be done to engage residents from ethnic minority, low-income or less frequently heard groups, and further research on this topic should seek to include these views.

What needs to change?

Our report recommends that planning and housing professionals must move away from formal equality of treatment; where needed, they should actively promote equality and diversity agendas and develop policies aimed specifically at meeting the housing needs of BAME residents. In order to equip professionals with the evidence, understanding and confidence needed to pursue this specific policy focus, all local authorities should include the needs of ethnic or faith groups in assessments of local housing needs.

Furthermore, the National Housing Federation should support housing associations, particularly specialist BME providers, in lobbying for increased partnership working with local authorities. It should also seek to raise awareness amongst providers of how decisions surrounding the design and location of new housing could inadvertently make it unsuitable for some BAME households.

The planning system may have ‘untapped potential’ in tackling racial inequalities in housing, but urgent action is needed if this is to be unlocked. It’s time for planning and housing professionals to take these issues seriously and strive for meaningful change.

Amy Bristow is a Project Officer for the Planning & Data at Improvement Service.

Views expressed by authors may not represent the views of CaCHE.

Photo by Ben Allan on Unsplash.


Date: November 8, 2021 12:01 pm


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