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Pilot Mapping of Local Social Polarisation in Three Areas of England 1971-2001

Danny Dorling, Dimitris Ballas, Bethan Thomas and John Pritchard
Department of Geography, University of Sheffield, Winter Street, Sheffield S10 2TN

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Summary of Technical Report
The technical report illustrates the possibilities that exist for mapping and interpreting the changing patterns of social polarisation in England over the last three decades. By social polarisation we mean the various ways in which many areas are becoming more socially distinct over time. In general polarisation involves poor areas becoming relatively poorer and rich areas becoming richer. In the context of the project described in this report we constructed, for each of the three study-regions, small sets of areas (neighbourhoods) that are comparable over time. One of the key aims of the project was to demonstrate how a series of transects can be used to reduce space to a single dimension, allowing trends over time to be seen more clearly when compared to using maps. The concept of transects is analogous to taking short journeys from affluent suburbs to inner city estates, within each study region.
The pilot project made use of a wide range of Census data and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) technologies to illustrate how it is possible to measure and map local social polarisation nationally to gauge the extent to which it is a long run phenomenon that social policy makers need to take into account when, for instance, setting targets, delimiting areas for measurement, or designing policy. The pilot project identified spatial social trends that appear to be most robust, and thus how it should be assumed that the local human geography of England may continue to change in the near future. Three areas were chosen at the suggestion of the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit to attempt to prove these concepts in this pilot study.

The 178 page technical report contains:
• Section 2 - describes the methods used to construct the small area sets within each of our study regions.
• Section 3 - describes past trends in key Census variables for all study regions.
• Section 4 - discusses how it is possible to construct indices of changes in segregation and isolation for these regions.
• Section 5 - offers some concluding comments.
Two large appendices are provided giving further details of all the results:
• Appendix 1 - 78 pages of charts based around 17 sets from population through economic activity to dwelling price
• Appendix 2 - 24 pages of indices of isolation and segregation

A separate short report provides a summary of some of the key findings from the larger technical report including:
• An analysis of neighbourhoods
• Examples of indices of segregation and isolation and how they changed over time in each area between these neighbourhoods. Indicies are contained on age, ethnicity, migration, occupation, economic activity, illness and qualifications.

The results demonstrate both that robust statistics can be derived for these areas and can be used to reveal changes which are of social significance. The summary report highlights ways in which the populations along these transects appear to be diverging over time. This research does not answer the questions of what changes are most important to measure and how they should best be measured and interpreted. It serves to illustrate what could technically be achieved nationally. The most important policy question arising from this work is - given that we can now relatively easily measure how the characteristics of the populations of large neighbourhoods have been changing over the last three decades across England and Wales – on what changes should we concentrate study the most and why?


The short summary of the full technical report describes the methods, areas and measures used in the work and have highlighted some of the social changes that have taken place along these transects which are perhaps of greatest interest. We should not be surprised to find that as society has become more polarised socially, that polarisation is expressed geographically along three routes specifically not chosen deliberately to highlight such processes. Although each route travels from near a city centre to the suburbs, we have simply travelled into the local authority district to the south of each. Thus very similar patterns of change should be expected across the UK, albeit with interesting variations in each place and no completely simple uniformity in most patterns.

Because we have only studied three areas we cannot say from this work that the population of the UK, England and Wales, or even London as a whole has become more or less socially polarised at a ‘neighbourhood’ level but it would be extremely surprising if this were not the case and we have presented here methods that could be used to measure such changes nationally. We have also highlighted those aspects of demography, economic activity, and social status for which geographical polarisation is probably most clear; and have tried to suggest that a long term perspective, going back preferably at least thirty years, is necessary to realise that these are generally steady long term changes which are occurring within our towns and cities.

There are potentially many implications for ODPM from this work. At a very simple level the comparison of social statistics by local authority boundaries could be argued to be highly problematic if used to single out particular local authorities as performing ‘well’ or ‘badly’ by any measure. That is because, in the three example areas used here each is bisected by a local authority boundary and each boundary tends to lie on or near the point where the transects change from being areas in which some social groups are becoming more concentrated to areas where other groups are now more likely to live than in the past. This is true by age, by economic status such as whether people are retired or permanently sick, by occupational and industrial categorisations of people, by how house prices have changed over time and in general by where the population is becoming relatively more or less wealthy, more or less transient, and more or relatively less qualified. Along each of these transects for many aspects of living in Britain there are both generally smooth transitions between areas and regular patterns to social changes over time. People are becoming sorted out in space by large neighbourhoods in many ways more neatly than they were before. Increasingly, local authorities will be serving very different populations to their neighbouring authorities as a result. There appears, at least for the transects studied here, to have been no abatement to the general rise in social polarisation that has been ongoing across Britain at these spatial scales since at least 1971.

Department of Geography, University of Sheffield, Winter Street, SHEFFIELD S10 2TN, UK Location Maps

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