The Split Personality of British Cities

November 9, 2009 Updated: October 1, 2015

The Tinsley cooling towers, that for 70 years stood as symbol of Sheffield's industrial heritage, are floodlit as they wait for demolition with explosives on August 23, 2008 ( Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
The Tinsley cooling towers, that for 70 years stood as symbol of Sheffield's industrial heritage, are floodlit as they wait for demolition with explosives on August 23, 2008 ( Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
LONDON—Behind the razor lines of terraced houses made famous in The Full Monty, lie the mansions of Sheffield's rich.

Separated by walls of trees and stone holding back the hills, these neighbours are not just divided by geography, money or lifestyle; they are split by a difference of 18 years in life expectancy.

Recent research by the University of Sheffield found a large inequality between the rich and poorer neighbourhoods of the city – an inequality which the authors say is unique to cities in the UK and the US.

“We don’t realise that, apart from the US which is slightly more unequal than us, most of the rich world does not have cities divided as we do in Britain,” said Danny Dorling, professor of Human Geography at  the University of Sheffield and one of the report’s five co-authors.

He drew a comparison with Israel – an affluent country whose cities he says are truly divided.

“Israel is an incredibly divided country – between the Jewish and Palestinian people. But actually, we’re more unequal than Israel and we’re not building walls around Jerusalem and so on,” he said.

“We have incredible structural inequality – it’s normal to us, it’s just how Britain is. People with nice family and jobs have nice houses that are detached and high salaries. People who clean get paid many, many times less.”

Seven hills circle Sheffield in the geographical centre of England and seven rivers provided a power source for mills to process local ore into steel. By the fourteenth century it was widely known for its cutlery trade, mentioned in The Canterbury Tales, and was characterised by steel and its related industries until late into the twentieth century.

Its present population of just over half a million is still imprinted with the housing mix of mill-owners, “little meisters” (the self-employed artisans who worked in the factories) and ancillary workers.

The report, entitled A Tale of Two Cities: The Sheffield Project was commissioned by David Blunkett, MP for Brightside, one of the poorer areas of Sheffield.

The difference in life expectancy between Sheffield’s neighbouring districts of Hallam and Netherthorpe is 18 years at a minimum, conclude the researchers, and could be higher if other variants such as swine flu are included.

The authors stress that the figures should not be taken in isolation, and that the trends are typical of the widening gap between rich and poor all over Britain.

Rich Communities Embedded within Sheffield

In the report's Forward, Mr Blunkett says that the economic differences are magnified by the embedding of rich communities within the city itself rather than at a suburban distance.

Cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Leicester have their rich areas away from the main metropolis, Mr Blunkett told the local Star newspaper, so these cities benefit from government grants such as the Financial Inclusion Fund.

Sheffield’s rich areas are, however, within the city boundaries, which takes the average income up – and beyond the threshold for government help.

This leads to disparities in spending power, access to education, and healthcare, and the divide in expected life spans.

Professor Dorling is a member of the Social And Spatial Inequalities Group (SASI) and has written and co-authored over twenty books on human inequalities including The Grim Reaper's Road Map: An atlas of mortality in Britain, The Great Divide: an analysis of housing inequality and Poverty, Inequality and Health: 1800–2000 – a reader.

He believes lower taxation is the source of the inequality: “Our policies of all parties from the mid 1970s has been to follow the US trend: we massively reduced taxation.

“This choice wasn’t made by the rest of Europe or Korea or Canada and was made to a much less extent in Australia and New Zealand.

“Reducing taxes doesn’t help the poor – the poor don’t pay taxes. Most of Europe has higher taxes than we do.”

He said the poorest fifth in Britain have income seven times less than the richest fifth. “You have, in effect, to work for seven days to get what others get for working one day.”

“In Japan, they don’t do it by taxation,” he said. “In Japan there’s simply a tradition of salaries being more equal. The boss gets paid three times more than the workers not ten times more.”