Yes, £70,000 is a great salary – but it’s worth more in some places than others

Loadsamoney. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Europe’s cities.

It’s only day four of the election campaign, and already the quality of the debate is so high that it’s making me want to claw my own eyes out and stuff them in my ears in excitement. This week’s highlight: a serious and lengthy debate about whether earning £70,000 a year made you rich.

This suggestion, made by the shadow chancellor John McDonnell when talking about tax policies, was perceived in some circles as a bit of a clanger – something that showed that Labour wasn’t on the side of aspirational hard-working families and so forth.

The only slight problem with this argument is that earning £70,000 puts you in the top 5 per cent of all earners; this, one might think, would expose the previous argument as the sort of nonsense put about by out-of-touch metropolitan elitist types who haven’t the first clue about how people live in the real world.

Except there’s a problem with that, too, which is that income is not the same as wealth. Someone on £70,000 but can’t afford a house big enough to start a family may legitimately argue that they’re a lot less rich than a pensioner who owns a five-bed semi without a mortgage.

I hesitate to take this one too far: £70,000 is a very good salary, and those who claimed otherwise mostly served to make themselves look spoilt. But it’s true that it’ll get a lot further in some parts of the country than others.

Which brings us to our chart. On the horizontal axis it shows average weekly wages in 63 British cities; on the vertical one, the mean house price in 2016. The dotted lines represent the national averages: around £524.50 a week (just under £27,300 a year), and £267,840 respectively.

It’s a bit rough and ready, but nonetheless splitting Britain’s cities up in this way seems to shed some light on the £70k debate.

The bottom left quadrant contains cities with both wages and house prices which are below the national average. From the standpoint of Bradford, Manchester or Cardiff, say, then yes, £70,000 seems like a good salary, for the very good reason that it is.

In Wigan, in the very bottom left corner, average wages are less than £22,000, and you can get an average house for under £130,000.  If McDonnell’s message resonated anywhere, it’ll be here.


The bottom right quadrant contains cities where wages are higher, but house prices are still below the national average. It’s a slightly baffling mix – Swindon, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Derby. McDonnell’s message will play worse here: £70,000 may sound like a less impressive salary, and wealth is a less important part of the equation.

Things get worse still in the top right corner: the cities where many people are likely to earn high salaries but still can’t get on the housing ladder, and thus feel all poor and hard done by.

You can probably guess which cities you’d find here: Oxford,  Cambridge, the M4 corridor, and, in the far corner, inevitably, London. The sort of people who say baffling things like, “I don’t know anyone who’d think £70,000 a year made you rich” will largely live in places like these.

Lastly, in the top left quadrant are cities where wages are below the national average, but house prices, cruelly, are above it. They’re all London commuter towns; and except for one (Basildon) all seaside resorts too (Southend, Worthing, Bournemouth, Brighton).

The obvious explanation is that these are places where  London exiles have bid up the house prices, while local wages have stubbornly remained low. What people in these would make of McDonnell’s comments is anybody’s guess.

Anyway, in conclusion, three points:

1) The value of money is relative. £70,000 a year is worth a lot more in Wigan than it is in London. This, one suspects, is why trying to formulate national policy in so many areas in hard.

2) It’s not that relative. £70,000 a year is still a great salary and anyone going round saying it isn’t sounds deeply silly.

3) It may still be a losing message for Labour. My colleague Stephen Bush recalls this illuminating extract from Talking to a Brick Wall by pollster Deborah Mattinson.

Yes, £70,000 is a brilliant salary. That doesn’t mean people will vote for a Labour party planning to raise taxes on those who earn it.

Anyway. Here’s an interactive version. Hover over the dots to get the details.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.

Trade-offs

In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?


Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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