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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To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.