To build better cities, we must overcome inequality

Rich and poor in east London. Image: Getty.

We think of cities as having existed for millennia – but only a few are that old, and they were all extremely small. Most people in the world have only lived in a city in the current generation. Most people who have ever lived in large cities are alive today. So we fool ourselves if we imagine that we have a wealth of historical evidence to draw on to establish how “better cities” can be built.

The city I grew up in, and in which I now live, is Oxford. But while historic, most of Oxford is less than one hundred years old. Most of the roads, most of the homes, most of the schools, most of the workplaces, are new.

What most effects life in Oxford, and cities across the country, is how economically unequal we are. All cities in the UK have a similar steep inequality gradient – from the richest suburb through to the poorest enclave. At times different cities are said to be the most unequal in the country. But they are all similarly unequal and suffer greatly from the effects of inequality compared to cities on most of the European mainland.

The recent economic crisis has exacerbated the UK’s urban social problems. For example, the main cause of homelessness today is being evicted from private rented accommodation, something three times more common now than it was in 2010. Overall, we don’t have too few homes, but we share out what we do have increasingly badly – worse than at any time since 1911, which was when we first recorded their distribution properly. Many homes are under occupied; others are more and more overcrowded.

Our health has also worsened significantly in the last six years, caused mostly by cuts to public services in our cities. This is part of a wider urban crisis. We are now failing to recruit teachers to work in schools in urban areas. And we are seeing many other basic aspects of urban live become worse in absolute terms.

Other countries demonstrate how we could do better. Turn to France to look at health funding, Germany to looking at how to better house people in the city, or Finland for schooling. We are not very good at learning from abroad, despite being fortunate that enough people migrated into our cities from Europe in recent years to bring a halt to the housing demolition programmes that so blighted many Northern, Midlands and Scottish cities in the 1980s and 1990s.


At the heart of our urban problems is high and rising inequality. As inequality rises more and more people near the very top of the income distribution begin to lose out; equality is squeezed below the fabled 1 per cent, and then below the 0.1 per cent. But the take of those who have most still grows and grows. As a result, the UK has become the most economically unequal country in Europe. It is no coincidence that it is also the first country after Greenland to propose to leave the EU.

Dutch and Danish cities show us how we could better plan our housing and workplaces to commute and get to school each day more easily. Norway and Sweden show how a high quality urban life is possible, even with cold weather. There are lessons from outside Europe too – from Japan and Korea for instance – that we could learn from if we were only prepared to look. The one place where there are few positive lessons to draw on is the USA, but we can see what might happen to our cities if we were to follow the American nightmare.

Cities are just one object of geographical study. Everything is connected. By comparing the fortunes of people living in different cities in different countries we can begin to see just what is possible. We can see that there is an alternative to how we currently choose to live and arrange our urban life. And we can draw hope that a dystopian future is entirely avoidable.

In most of the world, and in most cities in the world, peoples’ quality of life is rising rapidly because inequality is relatively low. So tackling inequality is the single most important thing we can do to building better cities.

Danny Dorling is Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at Oxford University. This blog is based on a lecture given by Professor Danny Dorling to the Human City Institute in Birmingham on 9 March 2017.

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Treating towns as bastions of Brexit ignores the reasons for the referendum result – and how to address them

Newcastle: not all cities are booming. Image: Getty.

The EU Referendum result has often been characterised as a revolt of Britain’s “left-behind” towns and rural areas against the “metropolitan elite”. But this view diverts attention from the underlying issues which drove the Brexit vote – and ironically has diverted policy attention away from addressing them too.

It’s true that a number of big urban authorities, led by London, voted to stay. And overall people living in cities were less likely to vote leave than towns. Setting aside Scottish cities and towns, which both voted very strongly for remain, Leave polled 51 per cent of the vote in English and Welsh cities, compared to 56 per cent in local authorities that include towns. (Consistent data isn’t available below local authority level.)

Yet there is a lot of variation underlying this average across towns. In Boston, 75 per cent voted Leave, and in Hartlepool and Grimsby it was 70 per cent. But at the other end of the scale, there were a number of towns that voted to stay. For example, Leave polled at 49 per cent in Horsham and Harrogate, and 46 per cent in Windsor and Hitchin. In places such as Winchester, Leamington Spa and Bath, the Leave voted amounted to less than 42 per cent of the vote.

What drives this variation across towns? Data from the Centre for Cities’ recent report Talk of the Town shows economic outcomes were the biggest factor – with towns that voted Remain also having stronger economies.

For a start, pro-Remain towns generally have smaller shares of people who were either unemployed or claiming long-term benefit. (This is based on 2011 data, the latest available.)

Towns which voted Remain also had a higher share of jobs in high-skilled exporting businesses – an indication of how successful they have been at attracting and retaining high-paid job opportunities.

And both measures will have been influenced by the skills of the residents in each town: the higher the share of residents with a degree, the stronger the Remain vote.

So the Brexit vote was reflective of the varying economic outcomes for people in different parts of the country. Places which have responded well to changes in the national economy voted to Remain in the EU, and those that have been ‘left behind’ – be they towns or cities – were more likely to have voted to Leave.

This sends a clear message to politicians about the need to improve the economic outcomes of the people that live in these towns and cities. But the irony is that the fallout from the Brexit has left no room for domestic policy, and little progress has been made on addressing the problem that, in part, is likely to have been responsible for the referendum outcome in the first place.

Indeed, politicians of all stripes have seemed more concerned about jostling for position within their parties, than setting out ideas for domestic policy agenda. Most worryingly, progress on devolution – a crucial way of giving areas a greater political voice – has stalled.


There was talk earlier this year of Theresa May relaunching her premiership next summer focusing on domestic policy. One of her biggest concerns should be that so many cities perform below the national average on a range of measures, and so do not make the contribution that they should to the national economy.

But addressing this problem wouldn’t ignore towns – quite the opposite. What Talk of the Town shows is that the underperformance of a number of cities is bad not just for their residents or the national economy, but also for the residents in surrounding towns too. A poorly performing neighbouring city limits both the job opportunities open to its residents and impacts on nearby towns’ ability to attract-in business investment and create higher paid jobs.

This isn’t the only factor – as the last chart above suggests, addressing poor skills should be central to any serious domestic policy agenda. But place has an influence on economic outcomes for people too, and policy needs recognise that different places play different roles. It also needs to reflect the importance of the relationships between places to improve the access that people across the country have to job opportunities and higher wages.

The Brexit vote didn’t result from a split between cities and towns. And if we are to address the reasons for it, we need to better understand the relationship between them, rather than seeing them as opposing entities.

Paul Swinney is head of policy & research at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

Read the Centre’s Talk of the Town report to find out more about the relationship between cities and towns, and what this means for policy.