One was born to a family composed from the European establishment, went to the second most expensive school in the country, and currently provides cover to a government hacking at the roots of the welfare state. The other grew up in poverty and was a scourge of the Thatcher government, under whose leadership Sheffield became […]

One was born to a family composed from the European establishment, went to the second most expensive school in the country, and currently provides cover to a government hacking at the roots of the welfare state. The other grew up in poverty and was a scourge of the Thatcher government, under whose leadership Sheffield became known as the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire. And yet Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and former Home Secretary David Blunkett both represent parliamentary seats in Sheffield.

But how could one city return such different politicians? Better still, is it even one city? As Clegg himself said in a speech to a Liberal Democrat conference: “If you are a child born in the poorest ward of Sheffield, you will die 14 years before a child born five miles down the road in the wealthiest ward.”

Not only that, but our imaginary child would have worse teeth, be more likely to receive some form of benefits, be more likely to be unemployed, more frequently visit A&E and even be more likely to be hit by a car; there were 716 road traffic casualties in Blunkett’s Brightside constituency in 2005-07 to 294 in Clegg’s Hallam.

And in April 2012 there were 127 crimes committed within 1 mile of Clegg’s office, but 1,084 outside Blunkett’s.

Carl Lee, a local lecturer in geography, says: “There are not that many cities in Europe, let alone Britain, that can display such a sharp geographical disparity of wealth as Sheffield. It was as if the city suffers from some sort of economic bi-polar disorder.”

A 2007 report by Barclays placed leafy the Hallam constituency fourth in the country for quality of life, above even some of the richest parts of the south-east. And Fulwood, also in the city’s south-west, is in the bottom 5% nationally for levels of deprivation.

But government data ranks Burngreave in the bottom 50 areas in the country for raising kids, and just under half of the households on the Manor estate – according to the Daily Mirror, “one of Britain’s worst no-go estates” – receive housing benefit.

These individual instances are symptoms of the East-West divide in the city, illustrated nicely by the map of council seats in the city, split red and yellow down the middle like a giant rhubarb and custard sweet. Places like Arbourthorne and Darnall could hardly be imagined to return a non-Labour councillor, while the party struggles in Fulwood and Dore and Totley.

Inequality has been on the mainstream agenda since the 2009 publication of The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, a hugely popular book which argued that lessening the gap between society’s richest and poorest people benefits everyone because of, among other things, increased trust, lessened crime and better health. But that gap has become a chasm since Margaret Thatcher’s election win in 1979. Despite massive economic growth since then, its proceeds have been doled out unequally, with the share of annual income given to the top 10% growing exponentially, as opposed to that of the bottom 10%, which has hardly changed.

And now that the credit-fuelled party has turned into an economic hangover, the subject of our social structure has migrated from the conversations of liberal academics to those between ordinary people in pubs and workplaces.

It’s for reasons like this that Sheffield is one of a handful of cities in the UK to set up a Fairness Commission, an independent panel of local figures who have been meeting since February to hear evidence on the nature and extent of inequalities. The commission will then draw conclusions and make recommendations on how to make Sheffield “as fair and prosperous as possible, a city in which all residents feel included.” It will report in September.

Blunkett himself has already commissioned a portrait of the city’s inequalities. Published by geographers at the University of Sheffield, A Tale of Two Cities mapped the inequalities in life chances between different Sheffield residents.

One of the report’s authors, Professor Danny Dorling, who has also given evidence to the Fairness Commission, links the chasm to the wider national trend towards inequality since 1979. In a recent article, published by the Institute for Public Policy Research, he argued that £200 billion is being wasted in pay to those who are already rich, and that they should have their pay slashed, by common consent, to pre-Thatcher levels and see the difference spent elsewhere in society.

He calls the wealth transfer a “saving” from the “salary cost” of the top 10% of earners. In short, society as a whole is wastefully rewarding the rich for their work. It’s a way of looking at pay distribution which seems totally alien to the tepid debate which rumbles on between Westminster’s three centrist parties, which is so fixated on the concrete levers of tax and spend against a backdrop of atomised self-servers, rather than the more philosophical questions of what a person might be worth to a business, as well as society as a whole.

He says: “The last time such a saving occurred it took over 50 years to play through, from roughly 1920 to 1970, at a rate of around 2% a year. So this is not a pipedream: it is what occurred the last time the UK became so unequal. It happened through a variety of mechanisms, but above all else through restraint at the top for fear of what a lack of restraint would result in.”

But with emasculated trades unions and the fear of communist insurrection long faded, who is going to force morality back into the British economy? Indeed the last politician to speak about the economy in baldly normative terms was Ed Miliband with his “Producers and Predators” speech, which gained little traction.

“They all use morality,” Prof Dorling says. “So when people say that the wealth creators have to be allowed freedom to use their wealth and we should protect and respect private property, that’s all a particular version of morality. So it’s always there. It’s just that morality has been kind of grabbed by people who are pretty immoral.”

Dorling is asking for an injection into Britain’s economy, in fact its entire social structure, of a pre-occupation with what ought to be the case. What such a moral re-awakening would require isn’t quite 1917 Russia but, he argues, a slip from the run-of-the-mill “politics of envy” to the “politics of disgust.”

“It’s trying to move what is accepted as being moral at the moment – which is letting rich people do what they like with their money – to saying, ‘Where did that money come from, that they call their money?’

“It wasn’t planned the last time it happened. It was almost organic. I don’t think it would happen this time by being planned. There isn’t some committee saying, ‘How can we create the new moral feeling of the age?’ It tends to be what you get when you get to a point where a tiny number of people have taken more and more and more and more.

“It won’t happen if everybody just blames themselves. If university graduates who can’t get jobs say, ‘It’s my fault for not trying hard enough.’ If people just take the Prozac and don’t think then you could get away without there being a general idea of disgust.

“Or if people can’t do the maths in that report, which literally just says if you reduce the pay of people like me back down to the level people like my parents had – still very well off – you can employ a million young people 15 times over on £7 pounds an hour full-time. That’s really back-of-an-envelope maths.”

Sheffield Equality Group
Danny Dorling

James Legge.