BBC News ranks Islington as the best place to be a young person in the UK

A new index from the BBC has attempted to identify the best places to be a young adult in the UK. What does that really mean, asks David Kingman, IF’s Senior Researcher, and does it raise some further questions about how we measure people’s quality of life?

Islington is the best local authority to live in if you’re between the ages of 16 and 25, according to a new index from the BBC, while Melton in Leicestershire is the worst. These findings are based on a bespoke quality-of-life index that was created by the BBC using 11 statistical indicators which measure things that are believed to matter to young adults in the UK, including the cost of housing, access to transport and the number of other young people who already live in an area (Northern Ireland was excluded because of a lack of comparable data). The findings from this project reveal some interesting things about spatial inequalities across Great Britain, and pose further questions for measuring young adults’ quality of life more generally.

What matters to young adults?

IF has quite a lot of experience of attempting to measure which places are best for young adults; we’ve written previous research reports that have looked at which EU country is the best place to be a young adult, which places in England offer the best trade-off between access to good jobs and housing affordability, and we also have some forthcoming research looking at the best cities globally in which to be young.

Essentially, what most of these kinds of geographical indexes do is identify some features which (according to the evidence) young adults find desirable, measure how access to them varies from place to place, and perform some statistical transformations which normalise and (usually) weight the data. (For the uninitiated, “normalisation” involves transforming different types of data which are all recorded on different scales, such as miles, pounds and kilograms, into unit-free values on a fixed scale in order to compare how they vary between different places; “weighting” refers to adjusting the data so that some variables become more important than others when you compute the final index scores, which is important if you have valid statistical reasons for believing that some index components are more significant than others.)

In the BBC’s research, they chose to include the following eleven variables (which are given alongside their original data sources):

  • Rent – median rent per bedroom (HomeTrack, July 2018)
  • Bars, pubs and clubs – number as a proportion of the size of the area (Food Standards Agency, June 2018)
  • Music events – number of events per day (BBC analysis of Ents24 data, April–November 2018)
  • Sports facilities – number of facilities as a proportion of the size of the area (Sport England, Sport Wales and Sport Scotland, June 2018)
  • 4G – percentage of the area that gets a strong signal on the four main carriers (Ofcom, July 2018)
  • Youth migration – net 16–24 internal migration (moving to the area minus moving away from the area) into area as proportion of the area’s total population (ONS and National Records of Scotland, 2016–17)
  • Age – proportion of population aged 16–25 (ONS, 2016–17)
  • Claimant count – rate of 18–24s claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance or Universal Credit (Nomis, June 2018)
  • Wild land – proportion of area that is completely natural, i.e. not farmland or parks (BBC analysis of Corine Land Cover 2012 data)
  • Buses – average number of buses per day and total miles of bus route as a proportion of the area (BBC analysis of Traveline National Dataset, August 2018)
  • Mental health – number of months the area has hit its mental health target out of the past 12 (NHS Digital, Scottish Government, Stats Wales, 2017)

The data were collected and analysed at local authority level, with each local authority receiving an overall score that represents the mean of its scores across these eleven categories (the full methodological details are available here). The BBC have also produced an interactive map, which allows you to click on any local authority in Great Britain to see how it scored across these eleven categories, as well as another interactive feature which enables young people to state which they think are the three most important variables from among these eleven, and then find out which local authority does best specifically on those ones.

What do these results tell us about the best places to be a young person?

Unfortunately, the BBC doesn’t appear to have released all the results of its index as a single document, which would enable us to rank all of them on each of these eleven criteria, as well as on their overall scores. However, as mentioned above, we can look at the scores across all the domains of their index on a per-local-authority basis using their interactive map.

Looking at the interactive map, the pattern which stands out most noticeably is that the places with the highest scores are nearly all large, urban local authorities, while the scores in rural local authorities are generally much lower. Presumably this is partly a product of the way the index has been constructed, because young adults are simply more likely to live in large urban areas than older people are (as IF demonstrated in our work on age segregation, Generations Apart) and two of the eleven variables (“Age” and “Youth migration” in the list above) directly relate a given local authority’s score in the BBC index to the number of young adults who are already living there.

Among other things, this means that certain local authorities may have higher scores than they would do otherwise just because they happen to have a university nearby, for example, rather than because they are places which large numbers of young people would choose to live in if they had a completely free choice. However, on the other hand, the reason why young adults choose to live in urban areas is that they generally provide more of the amenities that young adults want, so most of this pattern presumably results simply from this fact.

What’s also interesting is that there doesn’t really appear to be a north-south divide in the index results as a whole, with both the northern and southern parts of England having a fairly even share of high-scoring local authorities – although their fairly similar scores on the overall index can reflect highly divergent scores on the individual indicators. For example, Islington is the highest-scoring local authority overall because (as you would expect) it scores highly on most of the eleven indicators, but (as you would also expect) it received a score of 1 out of 10 for the cost of renting because of the high cost of housing within the borough; by contrast, Newcastle upon Tyne, which also gets quite a high overall score, got 8 out of 10 on the cost of renting indicator because housing is so much cheaper there (interestingly, the indicators where Newcastle fell down were on access to wild land and sports facilities, both of which are relatively scarce).

One problem that affects all indexes which compare different places is whether they have selected the best spatial scale for their analysis. This is particularly tricky in the UK because local authorities vary enormously in size, from large urban ones such as Birmingham to much smaller rural ones, and they also vary a lot in terms of how well they match up with the boundaries of different built-up areas. Obviously, London is an extreme case in this regard because it is divided into 33 separate local authorities, and while there are some interesting variations in the BBC’s results between different London boroughs (North London does much better than South London, and inner London does better than outer London), it does make you wonder whether the differences between individual London boroughs are particularly meaningful to young Londoners themselves.

Having said that, the great difficulty with the UK’s spatial geography is that there is no administrative scale which lies above individual local authorities in most of England (although the relatively new combined authorities are an exception in some urban areas outside London), and below local authorities you get into looking at statistics at the neighbourhood level, which may be too fine-grained for an analysis like the BBC’s one to produce meaningful results.

Overall, the BBC’s index is an impressive attempt to measure the quality of life which young adults experience living in different areas, and it shines an interesting light upon some important spatial variations. Which geographical places offer young people the best quality of life is an important subject which we hope to revisit in some of our research in the future.

Photo by Mael Balland on Unsplash:

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