Is Scotland the best place to live in the UK? Behind the headlines

Scotland’s been in the news this week as ‘the best place to live in the UK’. Charlotte Maddix looks at the data behind these headlines – and the story it tells about life in Scotland.

Yesterday, the Social Progress Imperative launched their new EU Regional Social Progress Index. The non-profit organisation has analysed data from 272 regions across 28 EU member states, aiming to provide a more nuanced picture of social development. They define social progress as the ability of a society to meet the basic needs of its citizens, giving them opportunities to improve their lives and creating the conditions for everyone to realise their potential.

In compiling the index, the researchers looked at basic human needs (nutrition, personal safety, access to shelter) alongside other factors like access to knowledge and information. They also looked at the opportunities available in a region – are the citizens able to make free choices? Do they have the opportunity to progress onto further education? How tolerant are the residents when it comes to immigrants, minorities and people with disabilities?

Overall, Scotland hasn’t done too badly. North Eastern and Eastern Scotland are ranked at 36th and 35th respectively. The Highlands and Islands come in at 54. South Western Scotland – which includes Glasgow and surrounding areas as well as Dumfries and Galloway – places at 71. Headlines have drawn attention to Scotland’s top placing in the UK. ‘Better quality of life than the English’. ‘Best place to live in UK’. ‘Best quality of life in Britain’. We can enjoy high levels of tolerance towards minority groups; excellent air quality; more educational opportunities. It’s these high scores that have led to the positive headlines. 

Michael Green, executive director of the Social Progress Imperative, praised Scotland for its tolerance and inclusion. However, he also pointed out that this data is intended as a roadmap – not as an end in itself. As fun as it is to compare Scotland’s progressive and tolerant society with its neighbours, what the data shows is a more nuanced – and less optimistic – picture of social progress in Scotland.

Take a closer look at the results for the Highlands and Islands. On foundations of wellbeing and opportunity, the region places very highly indeed. However, on basic human needs – shelter, personal safety – the region’s rank is 168 out of 272. The score is dragged down by, amongst other factors, the mortality rate, access to education and teenage pregnancy. The barriers that island residents face in accessing basic services must be thought through in policy making – routine services are often complicated and expensive to provide on islands. See our recent briefing for more on this.

For South Western Scotland, access to information and communication networks is average – but online interaction with public authorities is particularly low. We recently highlighted access to social media as a key part of ‘rural proofing’ policy making in Scotland. According to an Audit Scotland report, 400,000 homes in Scotland still lack access to superfast broadband. Rural areas are often last in the queue – and suffer from lower speeds.

Lack of adequate heating was also highlighted as a key contributor to the region’s poor scoring on shelter. You can read our recent review of fuel poverty schemes here. New ways of managing fuel poverty are needed – as this data shows.

Worryingly, people in South Western Scotland live for 4 years less than those in Devon and Somerset (top of the life expectancy charts for the UK). The majority of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland are within Glasgow. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on deprivation in British cities shows that a lack of skills, educational opportunities and good transport links are all issues common to deprived areas. This data release from the Social Progress Imperative adds to the evidence base and – hopefully – provides an overview of the issues on which policy makers can focus their efforts.

You can explore the data for yourself here.

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Photo Credit: Cat Burton Flickr via Compfight cc