The further you are from London, the more equal the cities are

What is inequality on an urban level?

The Work Foundation has produced a new report looking into inequality in British cities. It's a tricky subject to deal with, because urban inequality is very different in character from inequality on a national, or international, scale: for instance, the report finds that within an unequal city, people are far more concerned about "spatial inequality" – the existence of neighbourhoods with high levels of poverty – rather than what might be considered more robust measures, like wage or wealth inequality.

But there's one thing which isn't complex at all: the pattern of inequality. This graph is probably my favourite in the whole report:


What you're seeing there is a near perfect correlation between distance from London by train, and inequality. The further away you are from the capital, the more equal your city is. Except for Scotland. Edinburgh and Glasgow each have sizeable inequality themselves, and Aberdeen – over eight hours away from London by train – has the quirks of being an oil town completely wrecking the relationship.

But there's an intermediate cause at work. It's not – obviously – that being further away from London makes your city more unequal. It is, rather, that the driver of urban inequality appears to be wealth. The most equal cities are those which are smaller, have lower average wages and are coming out of the end of years of industrial decline; the report gives Burnley and Sunderland as examples.

Not only is there the fairly strong correlation between wealth and southernness, there's also the fact that a rich city in the north is more likely to be connected to London by a direct, fast train – which increases the strength of the above correlation.

The report's authors point out that this has interesting implications for tackling urban inequality. Most policy assumes that you want to make Sunderland more like London, not the other way round. And if the trick to reducing inequality is to lower average wages and deskill the economy, then that's not particularly helpful advice.

But the really interesting question is whether you want to reduce urban inequality. The "Spirit Level" argument – that high inequality causes a number of bad outcomes – has only been shown to apply on the national level. Is there anything bad about inequality in cities on its own terms?

The end result is that cities with problems with inequality would be better served focusing on the bottom end. On the national stage, where a redistributive tax system exists and where the intrinsic problems of inequality are known, it makes sense to take from the rich and give to the poor, but on the local level that's less clear. Strategies like the living wage, reducing the cost of living, and supporting low-skilled workers who want to develop their abilities are more likely to work on an urban level – and even if they don't directly reduce inequality, they're hardly bad things to have anyway.

Of course, given the standard of some politician's use of data, it's just as likely that the message drawn from this report will be "if you destroy train lines, inequality will fall". Which would be less than ideal.

Sunderland, the most equal city in Britain, in 1880. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.