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How can we explain levels of happiness and well-being of Londoners?

Unemployment, poor health, loneliness, and poor access to housing – are these the reasons why Londoners have lower well-being?

The Office for National Statistics have been measuring happiness and well-being of the population to gauge the progress of the country that goes beyond traditional measures of economic performance such as GDP. According to the latest ONS statistics on subjective well-being, London comes off pretty badly compared with other regions.

I attended a well-being conference this week hosted by Peabody. Glenn Everett from ONS said that early findings show that the main drivers behind low well-being (nationally) were unemployment, loneliness, and poor health, while most of the discussion that followed focussed around how housing supply and shared open space in the capital could be improved to promote well-being. Does London suffer from problems around these aspects more than other places in the country? Although it’s a complex picture, and I will try and touch on a few of the issues.

Unemployment – How is London performing given the national and global economic background?

When comparing with other large urban areas in England, London has the lowest unemployment rate, which wasn’t the case before the recession when London was around the average for English cities, close to Tyne and Wear, Merseyside, and Manchester. The rate in London is slowly creeping towards the UK average.

It is worth noting that unemployment is not a great deal higher in Inner London compared with Outer, the difference is currently only 0.3 points, while data for the previous quarter showed Outer London with a higher rate than Inner – the first time in statistical history. So relatively speaking, Inner London fared better than Outer over the period of the recession(s).  Inner London also has a higher proportion of working-age residents with high level qualifications (56% vs 42%), while the proportion with no qualifications is about the same (9% vs 8%).

London is one of the most highly skilled cities in Europe, and recent GCSE exam results in some of the traditionally deprived London boroughs such as Tower Hamlets, Newham, Greenwich, and Lambeth have been greatly improved over the last five years and now sit at or above the London average. The skills factor will give the London labour market an advantage over other cities both domestically and abroad, and London is in a strong position to gain if and when there is stronger economic growth nationally and globally. However, I think that while overall skills levels are high, it is important that Londoners improve their professional skills in the industries where they are most needed.

Poor health – Do Londoners suffer from poor health relative to other parts of the country?

Overall health in London is good with 84% of Londoners saying their health was good or very good in the latest Census compared with 81% in England and Wales – though of course London does have a younger population. But even within the working-age population, only 17% had a disability in 2012, less than any other metropolitan area in England, and the UK average of 21%.

Fewer Londoners drink or smoke compared with other regions, while sports participation is second only to the South East region, and fruit and vegetable consumption is also above average. Life expectancy of Londoners is above the UK average as well.

However, Londoners tend to work longer hours, with over 30% working more than 45 hours per week in 2012, compared with the UK average of 24%. Perhaps the additional work related stress likely to be experienced by Londoners only manifests itself years later, with some of the effects on care being transferred to other regions or abroad due to migration in later life.

Loneliness – Are Londoners lonely?

While London has a relatively young population and most people associate loneliness with being a problem that tends to affect older people, Londoners typically have fewer family support networks, especially for working parents needing childcare. Research from the Daycare Trust shows that just 18% of London parents are able to turn to grandparents to help look after their children, compared with 32% of families across Britain as a whole. The London figure is the lowest of all regions.  Even if their children’s grandparents do live in London, even a distance of a few miles can make it difficult and expensive for them to become the regular childcare option. With some parts of London having some of the most expensive properties in the country, this often means parents are forced to move into cheaper areas without friends and family nearby.

According the results from the Taking Part survey in 2011/12, only 44% of Londoners see family they don’t live with, at least once a week, compared with 60% in Rest of the UK, while the proportion who see friends at least once a week is about the same as average (76% in London, 73% Rest of UK).

Before the lack of housing became an issue in London, at the start of the last decade the trend was toward more single person households, possibly showing that if more Londoners had the choice they would choose to live alone. Between 2001 and 2011 the greatest growth has been in lone parent households (up 23%), cohabiting couple households (not married)(up 15%), and most significantly, multiple person households, which increased by 33%. Households containing either a single pensioner or a family of pensioners have fallen considerably (down 18% and 17% respectively).

Housing – Do Londoners have access to the homes they want to live in?

House completions slowed during the recession (falling 37% between 2008/09 and 2010/11), while birth rates have increased over the decade (largely thanks to a larger proportion of international migrants of child bearing age coming to London), leading to more overcrowded homes, especially in the private rented sector, where 12% of homes are overcrowded, nearly double the proportion 8 years previous, though overcrowding is still higher in the social rented sector (17% of households, up from 13%). The average household size in London increased from 2.38 in 2001 to 2.50 in 2011 (compared with no change from 2.40 nationally). Despite the average household size being larger in London, houses are smaller. The average number of rooms in a London home is 4.7 compared with 5.4 in England and Wales overall. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that 8.4% of London households are overcrowded compared with just 2.1% in the rest of the country, according to the English Housing Survey.

The high birth rates and reduction in out-migration to other parts of the UK have meant numbers of children under 10 in London have increased by 140,000 (up 13.5%) between 2001 and 2011, and that is projected to increase by a further 153,000 by 2021. This is already a problem for household overcrowding, and also has consequences in terms of school place planning. What might be the impacts of overcrowded schools in 10 years time? The schools perceived as being better, have increasingly smaller catchment areas and this can play a big part in the movement of families around the capital, and house prices/rent levels in those areas.

Fortunately in 2011/12 London did see a 39% annual increase in the number of new dwellings – that is nearly 25,000 new homes built, which is back to similar levels before the drop seen in 2010 and 2011.

However, the population is still increasing at almost 100,000 per year (as it is projected to do each year for the next five years). That means if the new population of London only moved into the newly built homes the average household size would be a whopping 4.0, while if we look at the same figures over the last decade, the average would have been 3.6 – still way above the current average household size. If the population and house building trends were to continue in a similar way to the past decade, it is likely that overcrowding would increase further, and therefore house building needs to be substantially increased, and that increase must be sustained over the long-term.

According to the ONS at £395,000 London’s average house price is 91% above the average of the rest of the UK. For many this puts buying their home out of reach. However, if house building numbers continue to improve, London may be better placed to match supply to demand, which should eventually reduce the earnings to house price ratio, and could increase the percentage who own their home to match 2001 levels. But it may be too late for a large number of Londoners entering their forties. Most lenders will not give a 25 year mortgage to someone aged 45. This could lead to some Londoners who wanted to buy a home missing out on the economic benefits of owning their own home. We can only guess what the effects of this might be in 30 years time when this cohort reach their old age. It would be nice to think those people who have not been able to buy, have been saving during a period when house price inflation has been relatively low, notwithstanding the current low interest rates.

Open Space – Do Londoners suffer from a lack of (open) space because they live in a big city?

At the well-being conference there was a lot of discussion around improving the surroundings of Londoners who live in flats or on estates, both within their home and in their immediate outdoor shared space.

An individual’s physical surroundings can play a big part in their well-being. Flexibility in design and ownership are both ideas that were strongly supported. With an increasing population there will be an inevitable reduction in space available for each resident, but that doesn’t mean living in cramped conditions. Even within a home, and providing the basic room sizes are adequate to begin with, spaces could be more flexible to meet the needs of a changing family. In design terms this could mean moveable walls to change room layouts. Other design standards around natural light (no north facing windows), ceiling height, storage space, and insulation for noise and heat could make a big difference to the well-being of residents. And outside, in shared open spaces around flats, it is possible to do far more with the ample greenspace (around 65% of London’s land area is open greenspace, water, or gardens) that London has to offer. As evidenced by Neighbourhoods Green, even slithers of land between someone’s front door and the public realm, landscaped in the right way, can make people feel proud of the area they live, and safer too. While slightly larger spaces might be suitable for growing vegetables – something that has been proven to help increase healthy eating. According to the London Wildlife Trust, children are usually the first to get involved with their schemes.  It is usually not the quantity of greenspace close to someone’s front door that is most important but the quality of that space and whether it can be enjoyed to its potential.

So what do Londoners like and dislike about London?

The Taking Part survey asked people what they liked about their area. Londoners appreciated good transport links more than anything else with over half saying this was good in their area. This was 24 percentage points higher than for people living outside London. Londoners also said they liked peace and quiet, being close to shops, friendliness of the area, and access to greenspace, though all of these scored lower than for people living outside London. The things that Londoners like about their area more than people from the rest of the UK included being conveniently located for work, good cultural amenities, their own home, the relative safety of their area, and attractive buildings.

In conclusion, Londoners happiness and well-being seems to be fairly good when you take into consideration the fact it is a large urban area, and all the noise, crowds, congestion and lower air quality that inevitably derive from that. Compared with other large urban areas in England, London seems to be performing well on a range of indicators. I don’t think there is one single factor that can be a panacea for Londoners well-being, but a range of improvements can all play their part.