Are the UK's cities equally unequal?

I obviously had to illustrate this with a 'mind the gap' shot and I don't know what else you were expecting. Image: Larry Johnson

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

Inequality is the buzzword of our times. From students protesting the inequality of provision of puppies to cuddle to remedy essay stress between colleges to Ed Miliband (remember him) putting tackling inequality at the heart of the Labour mission, it’s become a burning political issue in the past few years in a way that hasn’t been the case since, oh I don’t know, the last Conservative government.

But there’s a notion, somehow, that the biggest cities are immune from this. Or at least in certain political rhetoric, the notion is that London is the dark star of the UK – miles richer than the rest of the country and full of smug university-educated young liberals who are not only deeply out of touch with the rest of the country, but also deeply out of touch of the experiences of those experiencing poverty and the day-to-day pressure of not going into the red.

It’s safe to say that this is resolutely not the case. Cities have always been places where human life exists in all its colours, cheek-by-jowl. Walking through London can take you from a white-stucco-fronted world of tiny dogs and high-fashion characters to a grim pastiche of bad 70s architecture and worse economic opportunities within minutes. And in smaller, historical cities, the charm and grandeur of the immediate surroundings of, say, the cathedral, can be in stark contrast to the drudgery of the city beyond the tourist photos.

London looking suitably evil and dark-star-ish. Image: Garry Knight

But are some cities more unequal than others? Measuring inequality isn’t an easy task – and there are a near-infinite number of ways you could decide to quantify it – but the Gini coefficient is a pretty common way of going about the task. When measuring economic inequality, the Gini coefficient takes the economic status of all the individuals within a certain group – a nation, or the residents of a city – and puts those figures tighter. The ‘coefficient’ – the resulting number – is a measures of how great the differences between all the figures are.

So if everybody has the same income or wealth, the Gini coefficient is zero – perfect equality – because there is no difference between all the individual figures. If one person has all the wealth or income, and all the others have none, the Gini coefficient will be very nearly one – complete inequality – though in practice it’s very unlikely to get a coefficient so high for a sizeable group.

Essentially, the long story short is that a lower number means people are more equal, whilst a higher number means higher inequality.

A quick glance at a map of the UK’s cities as shaded by their Gini coefficients shows that this looks like a typical north-south story.

Most of the darker green dots – indicating cities with higher inequality – are in the South East of England, with some spreading up through the Midlands and a particularly high inequality level in York.

Meanwhile, cities in the west and north of England, such as Exeter, Gloucester, Stoke, Wigan, and Liverpool, are yellow-coloured, showing lower inequality.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities

Cambridge and Oxford are the most unequal cities in the country, producing Gini coefficient scores of 0.46 and 0.45 respectively, meaning they’re about as unequal as Hungary (before taxes and transfers).

London, Reading, and Aldershot fill in the next three of the top five spots, all still scoring well above 0.4 on the Gini coefficient scale.

The national average is 0.42, and most of the cities we have data for actually sit below this benchmark.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities

Eleven cities at the bottom of the list are jointly the least unequal – Barnsley, Burnley, Gloucester, Hull, Mansfield, Newport, Stoke, Sunderland, Swansea, Wakefield, and Wigan – with a score of 0.38, making them roughly as unequal as Iceland, before taxes and transfers.

Which begs the question – why? And, just as importantly – should we be bothered?

From the many bits I’ve written using data from the Centre for Cities, this ranking – from most unequal to least unequal – seems to correspond roughly with the wealthier cities to the less well-off cities. That is to say that in a very general sense, richer British cities are more unequal, while poorer British cities are more equal.

Which brings in what is probably the oldest question in the political book – which matters more? Is it more important to raise the general wealth of the world, a country, or a city, even if that raises inequality – meaning some people are vastly wealthier than others – or is it better to have low inequality, even if that means the general wealth of the country or city is lower?

Who knew cities could be so controversial.  

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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.