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:

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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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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