To analyse life expectancy in different parts of Britain, the Office for National Statistics divides the country into 432 districts. In district number one people live the longest, in number 432 they live the shortest.
Top of the (male) league table with 83.7 years is Kensington & Chelsea, London’s wealthiest borough. Bottom of the league is Glasgow, the UK’s poorest city, where on average people live to the age of 70.8. Top to bottom, a gap of almost 13 years.
When I came across this difference a couple of months ago, I felt shocked. Even more shocking was the news that this was a conservative estimate – the gap is up to 29 years between specific areas of Kensington & Chelsea and Glasgow, using data that is less robust.
I’ve lived away from Britain for some time, but coming back I found myself asking how, in a country as wealthy as this, someone’s life can be at least 13 years longer simply because of where their home is? I dig deeper into this inequality issue.
I’m told that in the past 20 years – roughly the time I’ve been away – real household income per head has increased by more than half but that one-sixth of the population lives below the official poverty line. Friends in Britain are less shocked about such facts.
They are not heartless, it’s just that Britain is changing. People seem to have become more used to living in an unequal society, but I haven’t quite adjusted yet. Like most people who have lived away from their birthplace, I am a little disoriented. The Bulgarian writer Kapka Kassabova encapsulates this feeling in Street Without a Name, her recent book about returning home. “You are at once an outsider to the present and an insider of the past,” she writes.
To try to become more of an insider to the present I travelled to Glasgow and Kensington & Chelsea, to talk with locals about their everyday lives. The aim was not so much to analyse why inequality was so marked, as to hear what was on the minds of ordinary people in such different areas; to gain perspectives from either end of the life-expectancy league table.
In Glasgow I went to Possilpark, the most deprived part of the city (in fact, it covers several postcodes). A settlement of grim housing estates, it felt a world away not only from London but also from Glasgow’s own redeveloped centre nearby. High unemployment, child poverty, malnutrition, drugs, alcoholism and organised crime are all problems.
I found it to be one of the poorest and most frightening places I have visited in the industrialised world. But, oddly, it was also uplifting spending time with people who, despite their surroundings, valued their community and were trying to make something of it, especially for the next generation.
Kensington & Chelsea was less extreme. I spent time near Sloane Square, in the wealthy streets criss-crossing the Kings Road – part of the “Royal Borough”, where family homes cost more than a million pounds. Wealth brings economic security, health and peace of mind, I was told.
Yet this was far from a perfect world. The recession was mixing things up, triggering discreet inquiries at schools and churches about coping with a lost job or home. The loneliness of poorer people among the rich was also a worry. And did people feel lucky or deprived, depending on their league-table position?
Many in Possilpark would have liked more money or a good job, but few were keen to move away. Some in Kensington & Chelsea acknowledged their comforts but also pointed to the difficulties they faced within their – relatively affluent – lives.
Many comments stick in the memory, but one jumps out. Brian Land, a Possilpark resident and sports facilities manager in central Glasgow, told me how frustrated he was that Possilpark had so few places where locals could participate in sport. “The problem is we’re used to having nothing here. If Kensington & Chelsea didn’t have [recreational facilities], they would make a big fuss. If you’re born into it, you take it for granted. If you’re not, it’s normal to have nothing.”
Hugh Williamson is the FT’s Europe news editor
How do children here spend their time?
Kings Road (KR) Wendy Challen, headmistress, Garden House, a private primary school
We constantly try to broaden their worlds. We have ballet – for boys, too – and fencing, and we’ve got clubs in ancient Greek and “scrapbooking”. Our parents are bankers, doctors, artists, authors. You can’t say we’re posh, but we do have to keep the children’s feet on the ground. Before they fly off to New York or elsewhere for holidays, we remind them to “remember where you have been”. In the end, the children have to get on with everybody. They’ll all go to the same universities, after all, whether they are from Glasgow or here. They need the skills for life outside Chelsea.
Possilpark (PP) Jean Forrester, mother of four, grandmother of eight, church volunteer, has lived in the area for 50 years
My daughter started getting into drugs when she was 15. Now she’s 40, is still on methadone, and sometimes takes street drugs. She became a chronic drug user, started shoplifting, and her brother joined her. My grandson was murdered a few years ago. He was no angel but it’s still very sad. He was killed for money or drugs. Everyone knows who did it, but people won’t speak out. My husband was an alcoholic, and between him and two drug users, life was pretty chaotic. But I was widowed nine years ago and that’s when my life started. I couldn’t live anywhere else. What we have to do is catch the kids before they go off the road. If not, we’ll have another lost generation.
What is the neighbourhood like?
PP Ann Lawrance is director of Young Possil Futures, a youth programme offering activities for 400 children a week
At one time my family had eight people living in a two-bedroom place. I miss the tenements, the contact with the neighbours, the way you could open a window for a chat. Now I live in one of the new houses, and I feel quite secluded. People close their doors and ignore what’s going on.
KR Judy St Johnston, chairman of Kings Road Association of Chelsea Residents
The Kings Road used to be more fun. In the 1970s, the punks were walking around; it would be nice if it had more character again. House prices have gone up dramatically, of course, and the boom in the City means lots of younger people with money have moved in. Many houses have been rented out to Americans and Europeans, or at least to their companies.
PP Peter Connachan, 17, trainee electrician, grew up in “the jungle”, a warren of housing blocks; plays in a band
Everybody is like a family, there’s lots of caring. You don’t grow up in a bubble. You get experience for life; it makes you a bit tougher. I never broke windows or took drugs – it’s this you can pass on to your children. Everyone is down to earth, no one judges anyone.
Do you like the area?
PP Jane (not her real name), 12
It’s good living here, you meet hundreds of people at the youth club. But what is London like? Is it anything like this?
PP William (not his real name), 17, trainee gardener
This area is shite, there’s nothing to do. There’s heavy crime everywhere. There are lots of coppers around. “Breach of the peace” they say, but why do they go after the drug traders and not the rapists?
KR Angus (not his real name), 15, grew up here and attends Eton
I come down from Eton most weekends. It’s boring there, no girls. I get £80 a month allowance but I never have any money. I smoke a lot, and you need money at Eton. This area is bad because it’s difficult to get into pubs. I’ve also had a knife pulled on me. People exert control over different areas, like those steps over there [near a McDonald’s restaurant]. Some of our London friends don’t like the really posh boys.
KR Lucy (not her real name), 14, attends Wycombe Abbey private girls school
I’ve been chased by chavs in my street loads of times.
What’s a typical day for you?
PP Ian Harris, unemployed, lives on £53 a week
I used to work at a fruit market, and before that on a construction site, but was made redundant. My daughter wants to go away, get a job in the navy, give her security; she can’t get work either.I wish I could go out more. Our neighbours are OK, but it’s the hoodlums at night who are the problem, smashing windows for no reason.
KR Rob Gillion, Church of England vicar, Sloane Square
With the current economic problems, more people are coming to church than before. The things that people had put their faith into are crumbling. I just had a text message from a parishioner who asked to be prayed for in making a big decision about selling an apartment. The responsibility of having wealth is a big one. Not everyone is up to it. It can cause anxiety, especially about the welfare of those you are employing. Loneliness is also an issue in a big city. Being in a community where you don’t earn as much as others can be a pressure.
What would you change about this place?
PP Brian Land, local resident and sports facilities manager, University of Glasgow
We should have more sports halls, community facilities. We bought a house here and are trying to make things better. But we often ask – is it best to stay here and make it a decent place or move out? We have friends who have moved out. That’s the easy option – you go and turn your back.
KR Hazel Smith, proprietor of Kings Road Sporting Club, a family-run sports shop
I like the cafés being open late, but I don’t want drunks coming in from other areas. I petitioned years ago for shops to open longer hours. Now I regret this. I wish we didn’t open seven days a week; we need a pause. But we can’t go back, can we?
PP Robert Robertson, retired bricklayer
The gangs are a problem. They offer me stuff [stolen goods] but I don’t buy it. It just encourages them to do more.
What are your patients suffering from?
KR Jonathan Hunt, doctor who has run a private clinic for the past 30 years
We deal with the problems of the wealthy – we see more gout than chronic bronchitis. Only one in 70 patients is a smoker – compared with one in four nationally. People eat well; not many bags of chips around here. We have a lot of the “worried well” in the clinic, people prepared to pay, say, £800 for a screening for colon cancer – to check that they are still healthy.
PP Anonymous, NHS GP who has worked in Glasgow for more than 25 years
It is rarely the patients’ priority to deal with their health. The first thing is to deal with the moneylender and make sure they stay alive for another day. There are so many more considerations than doing something to prevent heart disease in 20 years’ time. There’s no tradition of cooking. Vegetable and fruit intake is often virtually zero. Anyone who works with this practice finds it hard going, simply because of the complexity of deprivation. There was an epidemic of drug-taking here around the 1980s and the effects are still with us. We have three drug addiction clinics every week – two mainline clinics and one for women. But we have far more alcoholics than drug users in the practice. We have detoxification clinics, and there’s huge attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous: there are five regular groups just in this small area.
Additional research by Simon Briscoe