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New Research Shows Government Should Address Unhappy People Living in Big Cities

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The unhappiness of people living in big cities such as London must be addressed for the Government to deliver on its ‘levelling up’ promises; new research shows. 

The Social Market Foundation thinktank found that relatively affluent London boroughs such as  Islington, Hackney and Camden are falling well below the national average regarding their residents’ happiness, anxiety, and life satisfaction. Wandsworth and Westminster are also affluent-unhappy.

That is part of a broader pattern of low well-being in cities: Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool, where local Conservatives have been all but wiped out, are among the least happy parts of the country.

The debate about levelling up often focuses on the economic prosperity of different regions. But in a new briefing paper, SMF chief economist Aveek Bhattacharya points out that: ‘The Government says it wants to give as much weight to well-being as wealth.’  

He suggested that the logic of that position means ‘rich but miserable’ voters should be included in the Levelling Up agenda. 

In Queen’s speech, the Government confirmed its plans to bring forward a levelling up and regeneration bill that involves a legal commitment to provide annual updates on its mission to ensure that by 2030, well-being will have improved in every area of the UK, with the gap between top-performing and the other regions closing.

New SMF analysis shows that, on average, richer places tend to be more miserable. For example, Islington, Camden, Southwark and Hackney are among the ten most miserable local authorities, despite being among the economically most successful.

In a list of 377 council areas, Wandsworth ranks 44th from the bottom for happiness. Westminster was 66th on the well-being list. Those boroughs were the Conservatives’ most notable losses to labour in last week’s local elections.

By contrast, areas such as West Devon and Fermanagh & Omagh score highly on well-being, despite low rankings for economic prosperity.

The findings challenge the Government’s rhetoric and strategy around levelling up, which has focused on ‘overlooked and undervalued’ places rather than the capital. The White Paper offers little indication of how it intends to address dissatisfaction in urban areas beyond trying to ‘relieve pressure’ by encouraging people to move elsewhere.

The SMF paper says it isn’t clear why London and other big cities fare so severely on happiness. Low well-being scores could be linked to inequality, housing costs, crime, or a lack of social connections.

The paper argues that better evidence on the causes of unhappiness among city dwellers must be a requirement of the levelling up agenda. 

Aveek Bhattacharya, SMF chief economist and author of the paper, said: ‘The Government has a London problem – not just in terms of its political strategy, but also in its mission to reduce inequalities in well-being.’

‘Islington and Hackney are not the places that immediately spring to mind when we think of levelling up, but they are behind the rest of the country in terms of happiness, anxiety, and life satisfaction. We need to put similar effort into understanding and addressing the problems people face in these places as we do the economic challenges of ‘left behind’ areas if those gaps are to be closed.’

‘Having promised to close well-being gaps as part of the levelling up agenda, ministers must accept that their promises mean paying more attention to raising the happiness levels of city dwellers who might be described as rich but miserable. Levelling up means many things, including making sad Londoners happier.’

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