As we start to think about coming out of the lockdown, many are turning their minds to what sort of society we aspire to come back to. The aim of levelling up has to mean more than just – though including – getting the economy back to its productive maximum and boosting gross domestic product (GDP). We also want a society that is fairer and more just – a society that is happier.
For the North East is not only the place which generally has the UK’s poorest economic record. It is also the unhappiest of the 12 nations and regions.
There is doubtless a link between those two facts, but it is not a simple one. London is also pretty unhappy.
Office for National Statistics
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) started surveying personal wellbeing a decade ago. It asks 150,000 people across the UK to rank their wellbeing on a scale of 0-10 in response to four questions:
- Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays;
- Overall, to what extent do you feel that the things you do in your life are worthwhile;
- Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday;
- Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?
In its most recent report covering 2019-20 (before the pandemic) the ONS found that life satisfaction was lower in the North East than any UK nation or region except London and the East of England; for worthwhile activity the North East had the lowest level except London; for happiness the North East had the lowest level of all; and for anxiety the North East had the second highest level, below only London. For reasons of space only the chart for happiness is reproduced here:
Other charts, also omitted here because of space, show that of the 12 local authority areas in the North East, Newcastle scores top (worst) for anxiety and bottom for all other measures while the best overall performer is Darlington.
Three things stand out from the charts. One is that the differences in the scores from one region to another are quite small. But it is not just the scores themselves that matter, as the ONS warns, but the way they change over time. So, to use a different example, the North East’s anxiety level fell from 3.21 to 3.13 on the scale between years 2011-12 and 2019-20. That is only a movement of 0.08 on the scale; nevertheless it is a fall of 2.49% and perhaps more significantly shows that the anxiety level was moving down, if only a little.
The second thing that stands out is that all the scores of all the geographical areas and on all four questions are within the range classified by the ONS as high for life satisfaction, worthwhile activity and happiness and as low for anxiety. Personal wellbeing overall, you might conclude, is reasonably satisfactory.
The third salient point is London’s position as the worst performer on the measures of life satisfaction, worthwhile activity and anxiety and second worst for happiness. That raises the question of what the factors are that contribute to personal wellbeing. What is the connection between wellbeing and the economy, for example? Why do the North East and London, so different in many ways, both perform so badly?
Perhaps London’s high level of anxiety is due to high stress levels associated with highly-paid jobs in the City, the media, politics or other metropolitan occupations. But if jobs like these result in high levels of anxiety, it seems counter-intuitive that they should result in low levels of perceived worthwhile activity or life satisfaction as well.
In that case, what other factors could be responsible, whether in London or elsewhere?
Indices of Multiple Deprivation
Much more information that could help explain differences in wellbeing is contained in the English Indices of Multiple Deprivation (IMD), which were last published in 2019. The IMD assesses 32,844 neighbourhoods in England on the basis of seven aspects of life, or ‘domains’ as it calls them, of which employment is only one. The others are income, education, health, crime, barriers to housing and services, and the living environment.
According to the IMD, Middlesbrough is the local authority area with the highest proportion of neighbourhoods among the most deprived in England. Of 317 local authority areas in England, Middlesbrough has the highest proportion of neighbourhoods in the 10% most deprived nationally for income, the second highest proportion for employment, the third highest proportion for both education and crime and the fourth highest for health. But for housing and barriers to services it ranks only 250th in the list of most deprived areas. Finally, Middlesbrough along with more than 50 other cities and boroughs has no neighbourhoods at all in the 10% most deprived as far as the living environment is concerned.
Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development
Another measure of wellbeing is worth considering because it gives an international perspective. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has produced a Wellbeing Report covering 403 regions in its 37 member states. The OECD measures 11 factors affecting wellbeing. It reports that the North East occupies the following positions for its 11 factors of wellbeing:
- Household access to broadband: North East 12th out of 12 UK regions;
- Jobs: North East 10th out of 12 UK regions;
- Disposable Income: North East 9th out of 12;
- Housing: North East 1st out of 12;
- Civic engagement, measured by voter turnout; North East 11th out of 12;
- Community, measured by perceived social support network: North East 12th out of 12;
- Health: North East 11th out of 12;
- Life satisfaction: North East 11th out of 12;
- Education: North East 9th out of 12;
- Environment, measured by air quality: North East 1st out of 12;
- Safety, measured by the homicide rate: North East 5th out of 12.
Carnegie UK Trust
The Carnegie UK Trust, a charity, brought out a report in December 2020 proposing Gross Domestic Wellbeing (GDWe) as an alternative measure of social progress to the usual GDP. The Trust’s report, which covers England a s a whole with no further geographical breakdown, assesses seven domains: relationships; health; personal finance; economy; education and skills; governance; and environment.
The Trust found that over the past six years – before the pandemic – while GDP had been increasing, GDWe had been slowing and had started to move in the opposite direction. Between 2013/14 and 2018/19 GDP rose steadily by a total of 10.34% but GDWe by only half as much – by 5.19%, and by 2016/17 was actually falling.
Conclusions and policy
What conclusions can we daw from these various findings about the causes of wellbeing, or its absence?
Firstly, economic factors certainly seem to have at least some connection with wellbeing. The North East does have a record of high unemployment and so does London, which also performs badly for wellbeing. But unemployment is not a complete explanation. It does not explain why Newcastle performs worse than every other part of the North East on all four wellbeing questions. Taking all factors into account, people in Middlesbrough should perhaps feel unhappiest of all.
Interesting though the findings are in their own right, we must ask what difference they should make to government policy.
A first point to make is that to a large extent the pursuit of economic growth and the pursuit of the wellbeing of the population are not contradictory. Indeed, the purpose of economic growth is investment in the services which are important factors in promoting wellbeing, such as housing, education, health and crime prevention. But there is a caveat: economic growth unless pursued sustainably can damage the environment and therefore reduce wellbeing.
Another important point is that there may come a time when wellbeing, or at least any type of wellbeing that can be promoted by economic prosperity, has reached its optimum level.
Pressure for decisions on public investment that take account of more than purely economic returns resulted in 2020 in a review of the Treasury’s Green Book, which is the government’s guidance for appraising public spending and investment, among other things. The guidance was broadened in 2020 to take account of wider government objectives, specifically their effect on the environment and equalities. The new guidance is primarily designed to facilitate the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda for the Midlands and the north.
Whatever makes you happy, it is worth remembering that many of the factors affecting people’s wellbeing, while not directly linked to their personal prosperity – such as health and education – do depend on the nation’s ability to pay for public services, not to mention assisting less developed countries. So don’t bank on being able to forget about GDP, moving to Darlington and finding happiness for some time yet.