Race and Council Housing in Hackney, 1984

Race and Council Housing in Hackney

Report of a Formal Investigation conducted by the Commission for Racial Equality into the allocation of housing in the London Borough of Hackney

145 pages
Published January 1984

This is quite heavy-going and sober, with lots of tables and statistics. The upshot is that the CRE found that Hackney’s housing allocation was racist, in stark contrast to its media portrayal as a “loony left” Council. The Council responded positively and agreed to various improvements including ethnic monitoring, something which is standard practise now.

Some of the more readable excerpts are below:


Research has shown that ethnic minorities have been widely discriminated against and disadvantaged in the public housing sector. The Commission therefore decided at an early stage in formulating our strategy on housing to initiate a wide-ranging investigation into the public housing sector. An important part of this work was to establish the extent to which ethnic minority disadvantage in public housing was the direct result of discrimination, as distinct from the indirect effect of local authority allocation polices and practices. Hackney, as an inner-city area with a large ethnic minority population, was considered to be a suitable and representative borough on which to concentrate a comprehensive investigation of the causes of such discrimination and disadvantage.

We embarked on a formal investigation into the allocation of council housing in the London Borough of Hackney in May 1978. Our terms of reference, which were drawn up under Section 49(3) of the Race Relations Act 1976, were as follows:

To inquire into the allocation, disposal and management of local authority housing accommoda­tion and the provision of housing services and facilities by the London Borough of Hackney by themselves, their servants or agents to the residents of the Borough with particular reference:

(a)    to the elimination of unlawful racial discrimination within the meaning of the Race Relations Act 1976;

(b)      to the promotion of equality of opportunity between persons of different racial groups within the meaning of the said Act; and

(c)    to the arrangements made by the Borough pursuant to the duty imposed by Section 71 of the said Act.

Before embarking on the investigation, we held discussions with both Councillors and officials in Hackney and in the course of these the Council proposed an alternative approach to the question, whereby they would set up their own internal housing and race relations monitoring unit to work with us on a cooperative basis, rather than the Council being made the subject of a formal investigation. While we welcomed this initiative and expressed the hope that such a unit would be set up, we nevertheless decided that the investigation should proceed. It was also our view that if we found unlawful discrimination, the results of this type of exhaustive study of one borough’s housing allocations could subsequently be used as a basis for persuading other local authority housing departments throughout the country to develop their own effective equal opportunity programme.

The investigation was concerned with three distinct areas. Firstly, the allocation of patterns of housing cases from the waiting list, transfers, homeless and decant categories, were reviewed over the years 1978 and 1979. Secondly, two poor-quality estates with a high ethnic minority population were studied, in order to determine the factors behind the allocation of tenants to them. Thirdly, the role of the Greater London Council in rehousing a sample of homeless cases from Hackney was examined, also for the period 1978-9. We were therefore concerned with reviewing patterns of allocations for seven distinct populations.

We considered the results of the investigation in September 1982, and provisionally formed the view that the Council had unlawfully discriminated against black applicants and tenants in housing allocations. The basis of the Non-Discrimination Notice, which was subsequently issued and became final on 22 June 1983, was that the Council had been found to have practised unlawful direct discrimination against black applicants and tenants who had been allocated housing from the waiting list, or who had been homeless or decant cases, in that whites had received better-quality allocations of properties than blacks. The finding, in relation to the homeless and waiting list cases, was also supported by evidence obtained in relation to the allocation patterns that had occurred on two individual estates in Hackney.

In order that the borough could comply with the non-discrimination notice, the Commission made specific recommendations. These included:

(a)    the keeping of ethnic records and their subsequent monitoring;

(b)   the setting up of relevant training programmes;

(c)   a review of procedures and practices operated and the criteria used in assessing which applicants and tenants would be offered available property;

(d)  the allocation of a senior official in the housing department, who would be responsible for ensuring the Council’s compliance with the non-discrimination notice and the 1976 Race Relations Act generally.

In May 1983 a final notice under the Race Relations Act was issued against Hackney, the contents of which are attached to the report (Appendix D).

It is worth noting that an important precedent was set in issuing this non-discrimination notice against Hackney Council, in that it is the first time such a notice has been issued solely on the basis of statistical evidence. Until now, findings of discrimination have generally been centred on individual acts of discrimination. The practical difficulty of relying on this approach is that the scope for comparison, to determine whether there has been less favourable treatment on racial grounds, is necessarily narrow. When one finds less favourable treatment there will often be factors present which might appear to explain away the differences on non-racial grounds. However, when large numbers of cases are examined statistically, and less favourable treatment of a racial group is established, and one then examines all possible non-racial explanations statistically, it becomes possible to say with statistical certainty whether they can in fact explain the difference. In practice, non-racial explanations start falling away when subject to this kind of scrutiny. This is the reason why the Commission is insistent that ethnic record keeping and monitoring are essential to securing equality of opportunity, not only in the housing field, but elsewhere. And it is for this reason also that this investigation represents a significant milestone on the long road toward eliminating racial discrimination.

Hackney’s response to our provisional, and then final, finding of discrimination has been extremely positive, and at a council meeting on 22 December 1982, the Chair of Housing Services said:

The CRE has made it clear that what is happening in Hackney is most likely the pattern in most urban authorities . . . The Council should accept the report fully, should implement its recommendations, and should continue to support to the very fullest the efforts of the CRE in seeking to stamp out racial discrimination.

Since then the Council has initiated a number of moves to comply with our recommendations, including the introduction of ethnic records and monitoring, as well as a thorough review of their various housing policies and practices. The final chapter of this report provides a detailed breakdown of the changes that Hackney is implementing in response to the results of the investigation.


Hackney Council’s response

After receiving our notice of the provisional findings of our investigation, the chairman of the housing committee, Councillor Charles Clarke, in a published statement to the full Council, set the tone for the positive and constructive approach which the Council has subsequently adopted in relation to our findings and requirements.

Councillor Clarke said:

I believe that the CRE is setting out on a determined course to establish the secure legal basis which is necessary to fight the racial discrimination that exists in institutions throughout Britain. This is, for example, the first formal investigation by the CRE into public housing. They have made it clear that what is happening in Hackney is most likely the pattern in most urban authorities and hence the study’s importance is not only for this borough but for the whole country. It is for that reason as well as for our own purpose in ensuring that discrimination can no longer take place in our own housing policies that I believe that the Council should accept the report fully, should implement its recommendations and should continue to support to the very fullest extent the effort of the CRE in seeking to stamp out racial discrimination.

The Council during 1983 begun to initiate new policies and procedures and to set up the relevant systems to comply with the requirements of our non-discrimination notice. In response to our requirements the Council informed us of their proposed plans and time-scales in the middle of 1983. The brief details of these are:

(a) The Council had already decided in principle to record the ethnic origin of those seeking or receiving all Council services in December 1982. As far as allocation of housing was concerned, a pilot project was conducted in the middle of 1983 and a comprehensive system was introduced in the latter months of the year. The ethnic question itself is part of the normal application forms filled in by applicants and tenants themselves. A detailed method of assessing the quality of accommodation was also devised during the same period. Hackney hoped that the monitoring system would be operational by the end of 1983 and that the first significant results would then be available, from which further policy issues on methods of allocation could be considered.

(b) Training programmes were introduced during 1983 with an initial emphasis on those staff who were involved in the allocation process. Further plans were made to introduce training on race relations awareness for housing staff generally.

(c) A new post was created at senior managment level, the purpose of which is to monitor progress on race relations in the department and to ensure that CRE requirements are complied with by the Council. This officer is also responsible for a review of the procedures and processes of the allocation system in order to ensure that they are not discriminatory, in the light of our results. This officer will also be responsible for subsequent analysis of the results of Hackney’s own ethnic monitoring system.

The Council has also established a special panel composed of members and representatives from voluntary groups representing tenants and ethnic groups, and this is a sub-committee of the housing services committee. While its immediate task was to co-ordinate the Council’s response to our non-discrimination notice and to take necessary action, the panel has subsequently expanded its terms of reference to include such important areas as personnel issues, housing management and grants policy. It is the main agency for monitoring the Council’s response to our notice, and all relevant reports are considered by it before being submitted to other Council committees.

At one of its early meetings the panel and members considered that the Council should move at as fast a rate as possible in responding to the issues raised by our notice, and it was hoped that this rate would be faster than our time-scales. 

As mentioned above, the response of Hackney to our investigation has been very positive, and given the Council’s current commitment to the eradication of racial discrimination within the housing department, and the introduction of constructive initiatives in relation to race and housing, we would hope that the department will in future become a model as an example of good policy for other departments throughout the country to follow. We also note that the types of policies on race relations being introduced within the housing department are also being introduced in the other directorates throughout the Council.

The nature of the investigation, and the detailed examination of the wide range of factors which had to be taken into account before any conclusion that unlawful discrimination was occurring could be reached, underlines both the complex nature of racial discrimination and the difficulty of proving its continuing existence. It would have been virtually impossible for any individual housing applicants or tenants who believed themselves to have been treated less favourably on racial grounds, to have collected comparative information, even about other housing applications being dealt with at the same time as their cases. It would have been just as difficult for them to establish the foundation for a case which would satisfy a county court.

As Councillor Clarke stressed in his statement to the Council on 23 December 1982, we do not believe that Hackney is in any way unique; where other local authorities have undertaken less detailed internal studies of housing allocations, for example in Islington, Lambeth, Lewisham and the GLC, the types of patterns which emerged were similar to those we found in Hackney. We shall, therefore, over the coming months be discussing this report with other local authorities with a view to persuading them to also monitor their housing provision, without the need for concrete proof of the kind we found in Hackney. This will ensure that black people are being treated equally and, where they are not, that changes are introduced.

3 thoughts on “Race and Council Housing in Hackney, 1984

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