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Professionalisation, gentrification and welfare reform: 20 years of socio-spatial change in London

An interview with Chris Hamnett

The 2008 financial crisis called time on a long period of economic transformation in European cities that has seen their socio-spatial structures change radically. The conventional wisdom, in line with the works of Sassen, is that social inequalities have increased, but Chris Hamnett, interviewed by Metropolitics, takes a more finely shaded view, and invites us to take a closer look at the trajectories of ethnic minorities and the impacts of welfare reform.

Major cities across the world have long witnessed social as well as spatial inequalities. But since the 1980s, through globalisation and the spread of neo-liberalism, cities have experienced both deindustrialisation and the development of advanced producer services, massively transforming their social and spatial structures. These transformations, in terms not just of income levels, but also of qualifications and even ethnic make-up, have stirred debate among academics. The works of Saskia Sassen (1991) have been highly influential and have led to the thesis of polarisation becoming dominant to date, largely drawing from the US experience. Chris Hamnett has challenged this view, offering another interpretation of the social transformation of European cities – and London in particular – that have been confronted with strong demographic and economic growth.

Since then, following his work on the spatial divisions in London, and more specifically in the rapidly changing East End, his research has concentrated on the place of immigrants in the housing market and the British education system. More recently, in the context of the financial crisis and austerity measures, he has continued to analyse the impact of welfare reforms on the social geography of UK cities. During a brief visit to Paris in December 2012, Chris Hamnett accepted Metropolitics’ invitation to answer questions on the recent debate on the dynamics of London’s social and spatial composition.

I. How the socio-spatial structure of London has changed (2 videos)

Major cities across the Western world have experienced both deindustrialisation and the development of advanced producer services, as a result of globalisation and the diffusion of neo-liberal policies, since the 1980s. In their wake, these processes have transformed their social and spatial structures. London, a city you know well, has seen its population increase from 6.7 million in the late 1980s to 8.2 million in 2011. Over 30% of its inhabitants are from ethnic minorities and the city is also renowned for its highly contrasting social structure, with reports of some of the wealthiest people in the world living just a few miles from a new underclass. Can you tell us what has happened to London, how it has changed from a city in decline in the 1980s to a city of such wealth and contrasts today? What have been the main changes in its social structure? What have been the main drivers of these changes? And how have they reshaped the social geography of the city?

According to Saskia Sassen, and before her Castells and Mollenkopf, global cities, because of their economic role, have faced a bipolarisation of their social structure. You have criticised this theory, arguing that in London the number of low-skilled workers is decreasing, while the number of people working in the highly qualified tertiary sector is growing rapidly. Could you tell us how your interpretation has challenged Sassen’s thesis?

Gentrification is one of the key processes that has affected large cities in Europe since the 1970s. As you have explained, this is clearly linked to the transition from an industrial economy to a post-industrial economy based on financial, business and creative services. The spatial manifestation of this transition is the transformation of working-class or run-down areas of the inner city into middle-class residential areas. However, you reject the idea that gentrification always involves displacement of the working class and argue that it may be more appropriate to talk about “replacement”. Can you explain to us the ins and outs of this debate, particularly with regard to the East End?

II. Ethnic minorities in the city: how statistics relating to ethnicity help identify changes in social structure and population (1 video)

France is opposed to questions that use ethno-racial categories in its population censuses. The UK’s Office for National Statistics, on the other hand, first included such questions in its 1991 census. The latest data reveals that 30% of Londoners consider themselves as belonging to ethnic minorities. What can we learn from the British statistical experience? What key conclusions can be drawn regarding the structure and dynamics of London’s diverse population?

III. The impact of welfare reforms on London’s socio-spatial structure (1 video)

One of the key aims of a welfare state is to maintain social cohesion. However, in the context of the contemporary neo-liberal agenda that aims to reduce government debt, reforms seeking to reduce social benefits and bring more people back into work have been implemented in a number of European countries, including the UK. Against the backdrop of the economic crisis, the current centre-right (Conservative–Liberal Democrats) coalition has made huge cuts in welfare spending, notably housing benefits. What are their implications for the social and spatial structure of the UK and, more specifically, London? Do they go too far with regard to social cohesion in British cities? In your paper “The Reshaping of the British Welfare System and its Implications for Geography and Geographers”, published in 2010 in Progress in Human Geography, you underlined the potential effects of these reforms on the social geography of the UK. The radical reductions in housing benefits are particularly worrying; consequently, this paper could be seen as a wake-up call for academics. Indeed, what are the responsibilities of geographers in this debate, and what, in your view, should be at the top of their research agenda?


  • Feigenbaum, H., Henig, J. and Hamnett, C. 1998. Shrinking the State: The Political Underpinnings of Privatization, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hamnett, C. and Randolph, B. 1988. Cities, Housing and Profits, London: Hutchinson Education.
  • Hamnett, C. 1995. “Les changements socio-économiques à Londres. Croissance des catégories tertiaires qualifiées ou polarisation ?”, Sociétés contemporaines, vol. 22, no. 22‑23, pp. 15–32.
  • Hamnett, C. 1998. Winners and Losers: Home Ownership in Modern Britain, London: Routledge.
  • Hamnett, C. 2003. Unequal City: London in the Global Arena, London: Routledge.
  • Hamnett, C. and Butler, T. 2010. “The Changing Ethnic Structure of Housing Tenures in London, 1991–2001”, Urban Studies, no. 47, pp. 55–74.
  • Hamnett, C. 2010. “The Reshaping of the British Welfare System and its Implications for Geography and Geographers”, Progress in Human Geography, no. 35, pp. 147–152.
  • Hamnett, C. and Butler, T. 2011. Ethnicity, Class and Aspiration: Remaking London’s New East End, Bristol: Policy Press.
  • Préteceille, E. 2006. “La ségrégation sociale a-t-elle augmenté ? La métropole parisienne entre polarisation et mixité”, Sociétés contemporaines, no. 62, pp. 69–93.
  • Sassen, S. 1991. The Global City. New York, London, Tokyo, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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To cite this article:

Manuel Appert & Anaïs Collet & Chris Hamnett, “Professionalisation, gentrification and welfare reform: 20 years of socio-spatial change in London. An interview with Chris Hamnett”, Metropolitics, 19 June 2013. URL :

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