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.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.