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.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.