Four maps showing Britain’s economic divides.

What you are about to read is quite depressing in places, so here are some kittens. Image: Getty.

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

The time has come, the writer said, to talk of many things – of wages, jobs and housing costs, and ideally at this point there’d be something that rhymed with “things” but I can’t find one and to be quite honest with you I’m not going to dwell.

Yes, it’s that time again. Those nice people at the Centre for Cities have produced a bunch of maps showing the stats on Britain’s cities. Now it’s my turn to spend rather too long pontificating about them.

These particular maps come from this year’s Cities Outlook report, and are headed, as a set, “the economic divides across urban Britain”. Let’s have at it.

Map the first: welfare spending

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First up, this one’s welfare spend per head – basically, a measure of how dependent a cities’ residents are on government support. As with all these maps, darker greens mean higher numbers.

If you’ve ever looked at any map showing the economics of Britain’s cities, then this is probably a pretty familiar pattern. Welfare spend is lowest to the immediate north, south and west of London, representing an arc of prosperity that stretches from the capital to Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol. 

A few other cities are have low welfare spend, too: Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Exeter, York. But these are more isolated cases. Generally speaking the Midlands and counties to the east of London have higher welfare spending, suggesting the local economies are not providing for residents’ living costs – while the north of England is a sea of dark green, suggesting the highest welfare spending of all. While talk of a north-south divide is an over-simplification, it is, broadly speaking, accurate.

One other notable phenomenon on this map: seaside cities tend to come out worse. Often these are port cities, which have been hit particularly hard by the decline of ship-building and the automation of the ports themselves. (Liverpool, for example, is handling more cargo than ever, but needs a fraction of the workers to do it.) In a few other cases like Worthing or Bournemouth, though, I suspect the high welfare spend reflects the presence of a lot of retirees.

Map the second: wages

This time, the colour-scheme is reversed – high wages, unlike high welfare spend, are a mark of economic strength – but it’s broadly the same geography as we saw above. London, its commuter belt, the university cities and Milton Keynes have the highest wages. The Midlands and the north are much more mixed. 

Click to expand.

There are cities in the M62 corridor, from Liverpool to Hull, that are doing better than others. Warrington – the Milton Keynes of the north, as nobody calls it even though they should – is positively booming. In Derby, average wages are pulled up by high-value manufacturing; in Leeds, by finance; in York by, well, I’m not sure exactly, but York is generally pretty posh. 

In most of the cities around them, though, wages are clearly much lower. Just look at the gap between York and Hull.

There are also signs of the agglomeration effect, in which wages are generally higher in big metropolitan areas than in the smaller cities in their orbit. Compare London to Crawley or Luton; Newcastle to Sunderland; or Manchester and Leeds to the other northern belt cities. Liverpool, alas, seems to be an exception.

There’s one other odd thing here: Exeter has quite low wages despite also having a low welfare bill. That, to me, suggests it’s a relatively cheap place to live.

Map the third: employment rates

This is where things get more complicated.

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The cities with the highest employment rates include Worthing, Swindon and Crawley, all fairly thriving cities in the orbit of London. But the next tier down includes many cities in the north which, in the 21st century, are not generally associated with prosperity: Wigan, Preston, Burnley.

Meanwhile, Basildon and Luton are much lower down the league tables despite being closer to London, and even the capital itself is only mid table. As for Birmingham, despite all the talk of a ‘Midlands engine’, it has one of the worst employment rates in Britain.

In Scotland, you can see the usual division between rich (Edinburgh, Aberdeen) and poor (Glasgow, Dundee) – but even the richer cities are doing that well. Over in Wales, meanwhile, struggling Newport has a higher employment rate than thriving Cardiff.

Generally, a city with a low employment rate will be struggling economically – but not all cities with high employment rates will boom. I suspect that what this shows is that a job isn’t everything. Some jobs are not worth very much – and we should stop pretending employment automatically leads to prosperity.

Map the fourth: housing affordability

And so at last we see the downside of living in a boom town. The housing affordability ratio represents the multiple of the average wage you’d need to buy the average house. Generally, if you want young people to have a decent start in life, you’d want this to be low.

Reader, it will stun you to learn that in many places, it isn’t.

Click to expand.

Housing is least affordable in many of those cities doing best on some of the other measures – London, Oxford, Cambridge. Even though wages there are higher, housing costs are, relatively, higher still – because a booming economy in a constrained housing market will tend to push up prices. 

The north/south divide is clearest of all here: the further from London you go, the cheaper housing becomes. The Essex town of Basildon is unlikely to top any newspaper list of property hot spots – but because it’s within a 40 minute commute of the City of London, houses there are expensive relative to wages. More so even than York, by far the least affordable city in the north.

It’s a reminder that many cities are struggling to build enough houses – and that the housing and jobs crises are two sides of the same coin.


And another thing

One last point to wrap up. There is an enormous divide in some of these figures. The figures for the city with the highest weekly resident wages (£679) is more than one a half times that of the lowest (£399). The highest welfare per capita (£4,348) is more than twice that of the lowest (£2,105), while the housing affordability ratio varies by a factor of over four (from 4.2 to 17.3).

The one exception to this pattern seems to be the employment rate, which ‘only’ varies between 64.1 and 86.6 per cent. Flip that around, though, and think of the proportion of the population being economically inactive – between 13.4 and 35.9 per cent – and the gap is huge once again. Britain doesn’t suffer from an economic divide. It suffers from an economic chasm.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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Here’s how Copenhagen puts cyclists at the top of the social hierarchy

A cyclist in Copenhagen, obviously. Image: Red Bull/Getty.

Have you ever wondered why Britain is not a nation of cyclists? Why we prefer to sit in traffic as our Dutch and Danish neighbours speed through the city on bikes?

Forget about hills, rain, and urban sprawl: the real reason we aren’t cycling is much closer to home. It is not just lack of infrastructure, or lack of fitness, the reason that 66 per cent of Brits cycle less than once a year, is because of status.

An obsession with social status is hard-wired into our brains. As we have built a society that relies on cars, the bicycle has slipped to the periphery, and gone from being regarded as a sensible mode of transport, to a deviant fringe-dwellers choice.

Even though cycling to work has been shown to be one of the most effective things an individual can do to improve health and longevity, researcher David Horton thinks that there are a set of collective anxieties that are stopping us getting in the saddle. These include not just an unwillingness to be made vulnerable, but fear of being thought of as poor.

A quick look over the North Sea shows that there is an alternative. Danish culture has elevated cycling to the point of reverence, and the social status of cyclists has followed. As we have busied ourselves building infrastructure that testifies to the dominance of the car, Denmark has been creating magnificent architectural features, aimed specifically at bike users. The Cycle Snake, or Cykelslangen, literally suspends the cyclist above the city, metaphorically elevating the cyclist and creating a sense of ceremony.

In doing so, they are subtly persuading people of all backgrounds to see past their prejudices or fears and take it up as the clearly better choice. This means there are more women cycling, more older people cycling, and more ethnic minorities cycling. The activity is less dominated by comfortably middle class white males: there are cyclists from every side of the community.  

The Cykelslangen, under construction in 2014. Image: Ursula Bach and Dissing+Weitling architecture.

Despite abstract motivations like getting ripped and conquering global warming, it is only when the bike path becomes the obviously better choice that people will start to cycle. It can take years of traffic jams before people try an alternative, but if you make motorists jealous of cyclists, then the tables can quickly turn.

Another way that Copenhagen has done this is by taking privileges normally afforded only to the motorcar, and given them to the bike. The city has ensured that cycle routes do not include blind corners or dark tunnels, and that they form a complete, coherent network, and a steadily flowing system – one that allows cyclists to maintain a reasonable pace, and minimises the amount of times you have to put your foot down.

The ‘Green Wave’, for example, is a co-ordinated traffic light system on some of the main thoroughfares of the capital that helps minimise the amount of cycle congestion during peak times. It maintains a steady flow of cycle traffic, so that there is no need to stop at any point.


Small measures of prioritisation like this one increase the sense of safety and consideration that cyclists experience, making it natural for the citizens of a city to act in their own self-interest and get on their bike.

As well as redefining the streets around the bicycle, the Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog positively fetishises cyclists. The tagline “dress for your destination, not your journey” depicts the social fashion life of the cycle lane as a “never ending flow of happy people heading from A to B”. Its writers are  literally making cycling sexy, dispelling the idea that going anywhere by bike is odd, and helping the world to see that the bicycle is actually the ultimate fashion accessory.

So unlike in London, where cycling is still a predominantly male pursuit, Copenhagen sees a more even split between men and women. Not just because they feel safer on the roads, but because culturally they are comfortable with their appearance as part of a highly visible group.

So while our low level of cycling is partly due to our physical infrastructure, it is also due to our cultural attitudes. The mental roadblocks people have towards cycling can be overcome by infrastructure that is not only safe, but also brings old-fashioned notions of dignity and grace into the daily commute.

Of course, office shower facilities might stop cyclists being ostracised, too.