What is the UK’s worst city?

London, land of inequality. Image: Getty.

Careers have been built and friendships shattered debating the UK’s top cities – the biggest, best, happiest, healthiest and so on.

But what about the other end of the spectrum? What about vacuums for culture and graveyards for human endeavour? It’s time to clear up a controversial subject: the UK’s worst city.

Of course, one man’s miserable metropolis may be another’s treasure trove. For parents London is a well-established Hades, but for beekeepers there’s no city more supportive.

So we should probably look at multiple metrics. Demography, economics, transport, crime, popular opinion and culture, while contentious, all provide a meaty launchpad for analysis. Let us plumb the depths of UK urban centres to expose once and for all the most abysmal and abhorrent.

Demographic

Population flows seem as good a place as any to start. Stagnation alone immediately puts Dundee (the UK’s slowest growing city) squarely in the frame of despondency.

But perhaps a better indication of a city’s fundamental grotesqueness comes in the form of life expectancy. Glasgow has a triumphant tradition of coming bottom; its male occupants are scarcely able to manage 73 years before dropping dead.

Just as interesting, however, is inequality within cities. London is the outstanding example; men born in the plush western borough of Kensington & Chelsea average 83 years, while those unfortunate enough to have been born a mere tube ride away in Tower Hamlets see this cut by 5 years to 78.

So, that puts three cities in the danger zone – languishing Dundee, mortal Glasgow and polarised London.

Economics

Despite decent GVA, a measure of productivity, employment rates put Liverpool (63.9 per cent) and Birmingham (64.2 per cent) at the bottom of the pile, alongside existing crap conurbation contender Dundee (63.5 per cent).

The Gini coefficient – which measures inequality – sees Birmingham recover its reputation slightly. But Cambridge is publicly humiliated with a whopping 0.46, while Oxford (0.45) and London (0.44) follow closely behind. The latter three are also by far the worst offenders when it comes to the increasingly acrimonious divorce between earnings and house price, another measure on which serial bastard Dundee outperforms the national average.

A pattern seems to be emerging: Dundee undercuts everyone, then London blows the field open with its trump card of rampant inequality.

Transport

Quality versus quantity is the big issue here. Government research from 2015 suggests that, of the 10 most overcrowded peak hour trains, four were in Manchester and six in London. The two also dominate rankings for most delays.

This seems a bit unfair. Operators like Thameslink may dismally fail to match the satisfaction ratings of their smug northern cousins Hull Trains, but the function of the two railways is entirely different. With dozens of stations in inner London alone, compared to a mere one in Hull, Wolverhampton, Oxford, Cambridge and Leicester, the quest to find the UK’s worst city must go on.


Crime

A serendipitous measurement: not only is crime clearly undesirable (unless you’re a criminal), it also gives small cities a chance to escape ignominy.

Direct comparison is not easy, and clearly the Oxford criminal’s propensity for bike thievery contrasts with Birmingham’s concentration of murderers. But, despite honourable mentions for Sheffield, Bradford and Manchester,

London dominates the rankings in UK Crime Stats’ analysis of overall crimes committed by constituency. North of the border, the crime rate in central Glasgow is over twice that of Aberdeen city centre, its nearest competitor.

Cities containing a larger number of people naturally contain a larger number of ne’er-do-wells. Nevertheless, the proliferation of crime in major municipalities leaves them with ground to make up.

Popular opinion

Perhaps the best way to uncover the UK’s worst city is to interrogate the body politic. Provident’s biannual “unbroken Britain” poll seeks to do just that, appraising cities based on eight key criteria.

Interestingly Sheffield, skirting beneath the radar thus far, emerges as an undiscovered circle of hell. Its beleaguered inhabitants rank it bottom for happiness, trust, area upkeep, safety and politeness.

There are some other surprising results – London, Portsmouth and Oxford are consistent bottom-5 finishers. Glasgow residents have awarded their city a respectable mid-table finish for safety despite its high crime rate.

But although interesting, popular polls are reliably unreliable. TGI 2017 suggests a higher percentage of Londoners are “perfectly happy” with their standard of living than those who live in Manchester, completely contradicting Provident.

The Sheffield-London-Portsmouth-Oxford nexus of despair, then, while revealing, is worth taking with a pinch of salt.

Culture

Regularly touted as the cultural powerhouse of the whole world as much as the UK, London’s concentration of theatres, restaurants, museums and attractions is unequalled.

The RSA’s Heritage Index provides some more detailed insights. Ranking regions on their cultural assets, Derby is the lowliest city while London boroughs dominate the top 3. Data for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales is a lot broader, but Edinburgh, Dundee, Belfast and Cardiff all manage strong top-5 finishes in their respective regions.

But wait! Even disregarding methodological disputes, the Heritage Index exposes profound cultural inequality. Inner London does indeed top the table, but Newham only manages 316th out of 325 regions. The same is true of Manchester: the city has wangled a top half finish, but Trafford ranks two places below Derby.

Thus cities performing well have not done so evenly while those performing evenly have not done well. Although near the bottom, Derby is in good company.


The results

A caveat – making ham-handed declarations about the poorest performers across a few randomly selected metrics, while exhilarating, doesn’t prove inherent infamy. Factors determining a city’s rise and fall are often beyond their control: lack of inward investment, political change, economic pressures and so on. Whatever it means to be bad in this land of demographic division and iniquitous inequality, I am not qualified to say.

But I do think the worst can be grouped into two main categories: the dreadful and the deceptive.

In the former go the usual suspects – not the one-off calamities embodied by Sheffield or Derby, but the hardcore repeat offenders. Birmingham is full of unemployed murderers and doesn’t do too well on culture; Dundee is a cultural hub, but its economic struggles are reflected in its stagnant population; and, while the inhabitants of Glasgow are fairly upbeat about their city,  relocating to Kuwait, Cuba or Honduras would bump up their life expectancies.

The latter is more interesting. London and Oxford aren’t conventional candidates for the UK’s worst cities, but their incredible economic and cultural clout comes at a price. You could sell a kidney at the market rate in either, and still wouldn’t be able to afford a flat. And both are egregious in their own way – see the Oxford dweller’s purported misery, or the average Londoner’s woebegone transport travails.

What is clear is that headline statistics only tell half the story. The jaunty veneer of Britain’s best-loved cities masks gristly innards diseased by injustice. My anticlimactic conclusion is that it all boils down to personal preference: would you rather be jobless in Birmingham or homeless in Oxford? Stabbed in the front in Glasgow, or stabbed in the back in London? There are many strong candidates among the UK’s cities – but the debate over their nadir must rumble on.

 
 
 
 

Where actually is South London?

TFW Stephen Bush tells you that Chelsea is a South London team. Image: Getty.

To the casual observer, this may not seem like a particularly contentious question: isn’t it just everything ‘under’ the Thames when you look at the map? But despite this, some people will insist that places like Fulham, clearly north of the river, are in South London. Why?

Here are nine ways of defining South London.

The Thames

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

It’s a curvy river, the Thames. Hampton Court Palace, which is on the north bank of the river, is miles south of the London Eye, on the south bank. If the river forms a hard border between North and South Londons, then logically sometimes North London is going to be south of South London, which is, to be fair, confusing. But how else could we do it?

Latitude

You could just draw a horizontal line across a central point (say, Charing Cross, where the road distances are measured from). While this solves the London Eye/Hampton Court problem, this puts Thamesmead in North London, and Shepherd’s Bush in South London, which doesn’t seem right either.

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

And if you tried to use longitude to define West and East London on top of this, nothing would ever make sense ever again.

The Post Office

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Some people give the Post Office the deciding vote, arguing that North and South London are defined by their postcodes. This does have some advantages, such as removing many contentious areas from the debate because they’re either in the West, East or Central postcode divisions, or ignoring Croydon.

But six of the SW postcodes are north of the river Thames, so we’re back to saying places like Fulham and Chelsea are in south London. Which is apparently fine with some people, but are we also going to concede that Big Ben and Buckingham Palace are South London landmarks?

Taken to the extreme this argument denies that South London exists at all. The South postcode region was abolished in 1868, to be merged into the SE and SW regions. The S postcode area is now Sheffield. So is Sheffield in South London, postcode truthers? Is that what you want?

Transport for London

Image: TfL.

At first glance TfL might not appear to have anything to add to the debate. The transport zones are about distance from the centre rather than compass point. And the Northern Line runs all the way through both North and South London, so maybe they’re just confused about the entire concept of directions.

 

Image: TfL.

But their website does provide bus maps that divide the city into 5 regions: North East, South East, South West, North West and the Centre. Although this unusual approach is roughly speaking achieved by drawing lines across and down the middle, then a box around the central London, there are some inconsistencies. Parts of Fulham are called for the South West region, yet the whole of the Isle of Dogs is now in North East London? Sick. It’s sick.

The Boundary Commission

One group of people who ought to know a thing or two about boundaries is the Boundary Commission for England. When coming up with proposals for reforming parliamentary constituencies in 2011, it first had to define ‘sub-regions’ for London.

Initially it suggested three – South, North East, and a combined North, West and Central region, which included Richmond (controversial!) – before merging the latter two into ‘North’ and shifting Richmond back to the South.

In the most recent proposal the regions have reverted to North Thames and South Thames (splitting Richmond), landing us right back where we started. Thanks a bunch, boundary commission.

The London Plan

Image: Greater London Authority.

What does the Mayor of London have to say? His office issues a London Plan, which divides London into five parts. Currently ‘South’ includes only Bromley, Croydon, Kingston upon Thames, Merton, Sutton, and Wandsworth, while the ‘North’ consists of just Barnet, Enfield, and Haringey. Everywhere else is divvied into East, South or Central.

While this minimalist approach does have the appeal of satisfying no-one, given the scheme has been completely revised twice since 2004 it does carry the risk of seismic upheaval. What if Sadiq gets drunk on power and declares that Islington is in East London? What then?

Wikipedia

 

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

The coordinates listed on the South London article lead to Brockwell Park near Herne Hill, while the coordinates on the North London article lead to a garden centre near Redbridge. I don’t know what this means, so I tried to ring the garden centre to see if they had any advice on the matter. It was closed.

Pevsner Guides

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

Art historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner might seem an unlikely source of help at this juncture, but we’ve tried everything else. And the series of architectural guides that he edited, The Buildings of England, originally included 2 volumes for London: “The Cities of London and Westminster”, and “everything else”. Which is useless.

But as his successors have revised his work, London has expanded to fill 6 volumes: North, North West, East, The City, Westminster, and South. South, quite sensibly, includes every borough south of the Thames, and any borough that is partly south of the Thames (i.e. Richmond). And as a bonus: West London no longer exists.

McDonald’s

I rang a McDonald’s in Fulham and asked if they were in South London. They said no.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook