The best places to be average

The ruins of Odiham Castle, which dates from the 13th centuryA study commissioned by Halifax (part of the big HBOS banking group but formerly a mutual building society) has found that the district of Hart in Hampshire is the best place to live in the UK, a position it also held in this survey from 2011 to 2013 although it was only 26th last year. The study looks at such matters as life expectancy, health, crime rates, earnings, employment, ‘wellbeing’ and the weather; Hart has the longest female life expectancy in the UK, for example, at 86.7 years. The list contains mostly rural districts throughout the country including several affluent southern districts, though two are in North Yorkshire, the Orkney islands are in second place and the cities of London and Westminster are also included. One thing does not seem to count, though: diversity.

I’ve been to Hart district a few times, having to make deliveries there quite a lot. It’s just west of the military conurbation on the Surrey-Hampshire border (Camberley, Aldershot, Farnborough etc) and consists of the small towns of Fleet and Blackwater and the large villages of Hook, Hartley Wintney and Odiham (not sure if the name refers to its race relations!); it also includes a fair bit of countryside, some military bases and some light industry (a large car auction site west of Blackwater and a big logistics depot at Hook, fo r example). It’s safe to say that the area is solidly middle-class and mostly White, with a fairly large representation of military families, quite possibly more senior ranks. The average house price is nearly £420,000, more than eight times the local average pre-tax annual income. It’s not as extremely wealthy as parts of nearby Surrey Heath or Windsor and Maidenhead but it doesn’t have serious pockets of deprivation either.

Quite a few people would not want to live in Hart even if they could afford it. True, one of the district’s two MPs is Asian (Ranil Jayawardena), but if you need an ethnic food shop (a halal butcher’s, for example), you won’t find many in that district (I suspect there’s a couple of halal kebab or fried chicken places in Fleet or Blackwater and there’s certainly one or two in nearby Camberley, but nothing much). Nearest mosques are in Camberley, Aldershot or Basingstoke, all out of district. At least Rushmoor, its firmly military Hampshire neighbour, has a large Nepalese community as a result of the government allowing Gurkhas to settle here. Not to say the people in Hart are rabid racists, but if you’re looking for culture, cuisine and people like you and you’re not white, you might not find it as pleasant to live in as if you were. And as a Twitter friend remarked, “middle-class places can be suffocating to live in, especially if you can’t conform to expectations”.

A few months ago the BBC published a survey of the supposed “best places to be a woman” and the top 10 was also dominated by affluent, mostly white non-urban districts and unitary authorities: West Oxfordshire, West Berkshire, Winchester, Mid Sussex and the bottom ten including four inner London boroughs and various old industrial towns in the North and Midlands, although Boston, an isolated rural district in Lincolnshire, came fourth worst. The London boroughs ranked low because of expensive housing and because — despite high average female earnings — they had a high gender pay gap. Despite both surveys finding that affluent areas were both the best place to live in general and the best place to be a woman, different areas topped the two; Hart came only only 110th for women, while Rutland (3rd place in the Halifax study) was only 144th in general (Orkney, 2nd in the general study, was 13th for women). Of the top 10 in the Halifax survey, only Winchester (5th place) was of similar rank in the BBC women’s survey (6th place); Waverley in Surrey (an affluent district that includes Cranleigh, Haslemere, Godalming and Farnham) is 7th in the general study and 11th in the women’s study. Fifteen of Halifax’s top 50 districts are in Yorkshire; none of the top 50 for women are in that region and only three are in northern England at all. Finally, Westminster and City of London rank 13th and 18th respectively in the general study but 8th and 7th from bottom (of 380 districts) in the women’s study.

It makes little sense to conduct surveys into the “best places to live” if they always show that the best places are the most affluent and often the least diverse. High average earnings do not reflect any achievement on a community’s part; they reflect the fact that the area has high house prices and the less well-off cannot afford to live there (even where high earnings appear in the same district as lower house prices, this could just mean that there is a deprived area in the district which drags the average down while the high prices remain in the areas with desirable properties). It would be more useful to compare like with like; similar-sized towns and cities, rural districts, those with similar demographics, university towns and cities and so on. Some affluent semi-rural districts have next to no public transport — buses that run once or twice a week or not at all — and for anyone who cannot afford a car or who for medical reasons cannot drive, these are not going to be good places to live regardless of any low gender pay gap or crime rates.

The biggest problem with both of these studies is that they take no account of diversity whatever. Nothing that could mostly be of interest to poor, disabled or minority ethnic people is considered. In the case of the women’s study, even its specificity to women is limited; the safety criterion is based on crime rates but not such things as sexual assault rates or the clean-up rate thereof; the education section is not broken down by gender (such matters as qualifications achieved by girls or the presence of all-girls’ schools). “Culture” is measured by visits to libraries, the cinema, arts exhibitions and museums, all well and good, but there is no measuring exposure to culture that is not white and western. If your idea of a good place to live involves ready access to diverse cuisines and a place of worship that is not a church, none of the supposed “best places to live” will appeal.

Why do we need a study on the best place to be average? That’s all these studies tell us.

Image source: Wikipedia, sourced from BabelStone. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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