We all know that some parts of Britain are richer than others, but where do people live the most satisfying lives? This survey - prepared with the help of the New Economics Foundation - gives a uniquely rounded picture of the relative merits of different parts of the country in terms of the things which really matter. The results are shown overleaf
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ONE MAN'S SLUM is another's close-knit community. Ever since Plato chose totalitarian Sparta as the model for the ideal community he outlined in the Republic - and immediately found himself at odds with his more freedom-loving contemporaries - the relationship between place and quality of life has proved contentious. Yet the two are indissolubly linked. Even Utopia is supposed to have existed - an island somewhere between Brazil and India, discovered during the voyages of Amerigo Vespucci, according to Sir Thomas More. By giving his dream an identity and a geography - by suggesting that nowhere was somewhere - More implied that it was achievable. The modern quest for Utopia is a little more pragmatic.

The quality of life rankings published on these pages can be regarded as a part of that search. In a post-ideological age, ideal societies and cities are out of fashion. Indeed, Utopia has become dystopia: the Republic has turned into Brave New World and 1984. But if we have learnt to mistrust the blueprints of planners and social reformers, we can still dream. And in the late 20th-century, such dreams have unprecedented potency.

In the past, the freedom to choose where one lives has been constrained - by feudal bonds, by city states mistrustful of strangers, by transport and technology and the corresponding need to be in big, central places. But most of those constraints have now vanished: geography, for everyday purposes, has been conquered. Such choices are thus freer now than at any time in the past, and look certain to become more so.

At the same time, the way we think and feel has changed: in the past two centuries our attitudes to town and country have been turned upside down. Wilderness has become fashionable, cities are seen as centres of crime rather than culture. Blueprints, in so far as they survive, have turned into greenprints; most of us dream of Arcadia rather than Utopia.

Westerners are also, as polls show, increasingly "post-materialist." For all the absence of the feelgood factor, our basic needs for warmth, shelter and sustenance have been satisfied; we are more interested in defining, and pursuing, the higher things in life.

It is against this background that the modern quest for the best places to live has developed. Since the Eighties, quality of life studies have come thick, fast and ever more ambitious. In the United States, the regular Places Rated Almanac, published since 1981, has become a best-seller, its league tables of towns and cities aimed at a new generation of supposedly footloose job-hunters. This year, Guinness attempted the same with its Top Towns survey of Britain (on sale in paperback at pounds 9.99 - the first time in the UK that quality of life rankings have made it into the high street bookshop). Private research groups such as Reward, based in Staffordshire, produce regular regional "quality of life" reports based on the cost of living. And, since the late Eighties, the quality of life group at Strathclyde University has produced the most ambitious and academically respectable work in the UK to date, ranking scores of British towns according to factors such as crime, pollution, health, environment and education.

Such surveys are striking, above all, for their diversity of conclusion. Come to the south-east, says Guinness. Go to Scotland, says Reward. Try the Celtic fringe, urges Strathclyde. If you think you know a place - perhaps you visited it once or twice and didn't like what you saw - their suggestions may contain an incredibility factor. In 1980, for example, the distinguished social researcher David Donnison tried to identity the UK's "best" town, and came up with Swindon. Strathclyde's top 10 cities included Middlesbrough, Stoke-on-Trent, Sheffield and Bradford, all synonymous, in the eyes of Southerners, with smoke, cloth caps and gloom. And what about Kingston-upon-Thames, Britain's top town as selected by Guinness? A pleasant enough place, no doubt (if you ignore the traffic) - but the best in the country? Some mistake, surely?

As many born-again Northern towns, struggling to establish themselves as places fit for post-industrial tourism, have discovered to their cost, image is a potent and irrational force. Yet it is clearly at work in our choice of where to live - it is no accident that the South West, pinpointed as the "top" region in the NEF/IoS rankings (see overleaf), has also been identified, in work done at Strathclyde, as the region with the most positive image. In a survey of 115 areas, Cornwall, Devon and Somerset ranked top as the most preferred destinations; Newham, Tower Hamlets and Wolverhampton were bottom.

Several important lessons have emerged from the recent predecessors of our study. First, it is probably invidious to single out any one town or city as "the best": it conjures up unreal expectations. Who wants to set out for Utopia and end up in Kingston-upon-Thames? Second, any place thus singled out is likely to be quite large: our local government system and our methods of collecting statistics are built around the concentration of people in urban areas. Evidence from both opinion surveys and demography suggests that most of us prefer to live in smaller places. But these places cannot make themselves felt in the rankings; the raw statistical material is absent.

Third, "environmental quality", one of the most important factors of all in most people's perception of quality of life, is notoriously difficult to measure - statistically, at least. Guinness's Top Towns, for example, acknowledges the importance of traffic and air pollution, beach cleanliness, water quality and vanishing species and habitats; it also admits that its chosen top town, Kingston, suffers badly from traffic congestion. Yet because of the absence of local data on such matters, its environmental rankings rely solely on climatic data: rainfall, sunshine hours and annual temperature. Ten inner London boroughs, led by Hackney, thus come top of the Top Towns environmental league tables, while the likes of Cornwall, the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands languish, respectively, in 53rd, 106th and 125th place. In other words, statistics - or their interpretation - have produced a result which most people would regard as the precise opposite of the truth.

The NEF/IoS rankings shown overleaf have tried to avoid some of these pitfalls. First, they are regional: they avoid specifying particular towns or cities. Second, as well as measuring traditional quality-of-life ingredients such as employment, cost of living, health and education, they also attempt to incorporate more of the social, psychological, cultural and environmental factors which people increasingly care about - and which might be expected to reflect the values of Independent on Sunday readers.

One of our ranking criteria, for example, is community - that indefinable sense of identity and mutualism which, however resistant to statistics, clearly reinforces the social fabric and is a vital ingredient of a successful place. The community rankings are based on two main measures: how many people do voluntary work and how many are taking part in local exchange trading systems (LETS), the schemes in which people swap skills and services through cashless local currencies. NEF has been a strong advocate of LETS schemes, hundreds of which have sprung up throughout the country during the Nineties. The existence of a LETS scheme means that people are banding together, building new social networks: they are thus a novel but important measure of co-operation and self-reliance.

We have also developed a tranquillity index - an amalgam of sunshine, scenery and peacefulness (in this case, the absence of traffic noise) which reflects the fact that people nowadays spend a large part of their leisure-time trying to escape the crowds. We live in an increasingly congested world - and "people pollution" may be at the root of a range of new phenomena, from "road-rage" to the enormous growth in complaints about noise in the past two decades.

Our security category measures fear of crime as well as crime itself - since survey evidence indicates that, however statistically irrational fear of crime may be, it is a powerful determinant of behaviour. And themes such as spaciousness and stability figure in our rankings for population density and housing. The housing category, for instance, measures not just house prices but, more important, how much housing space you get for your money. The population rankings show how densities are increasing: they are thus an index of urban sprawl and town-cramming. An area that is growing relatively slowly is likely to be suffering less strain on services and infrastructure: there is also less chance that within a few years of your moving there, a large housing estate will be built on your doorstep.

The indicators used in the NEF/IoS rankings correspond broadly with the themes most commonly cited in quality of life studies in which people have been asked what matters to them most. However, we make no claims for comprehensiveness or perfection. Critics might object, for example, that the regional approach is not fine-grained enough. The South West stretches from Pewsey to Penzance - how is one to work out the best place to live in an area 250 miles long and 50 miles across?

A small part of the answer is statistical. Many of the figures which answer the questions we wanted to ask are only available regionally. More important, we believe that a regional analysis makes social, political and personal sense. The combination of car and motorway has shrunk distances, lengthened personal travel horizons and widened catchment areas for a host of services. The landscape features that help to draw people to places are often, in essence, regional or sub-regional; the beaches of the South West, the mountains of Scotland. And, of course, regionalism is on the ascendant. Regional assemblies are back on the constitutional agenda; regions are likely to prosper in the EU.

A regional analysis also steers a way round the urban-rural divide. It attempts to reflect one of the main lessons of the exodus from the big cities over the past three decades - which is that the smaller and less developed a place is, the more desirable it is likely to be. It suggests that the purpose of such rankings is not so much to pinpoint places as to suggest where they might be found.

As an aid to this process, we have taken a closer look at the "winning" region, the South West: the results (see map, above) suggest that Wiltshire, followed by Devon and Dorset, may be better places to look than Avon or Cornwall. We have done the same for Greater London, which came bottom of the rankings (see overleaf). However, both these "sub-regional" comparisons are less finely tuned, statistically, than the main regional analysis. They should thus be treated with caution.

So, of course, should all our figures: studies like these can never be wholly scientific. But it is interesting to note that our results receive corroboration from other surveys. The top five cities identified by Strathclyde University in their 1988 quality of life rankings - Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Plymouth, Cardiff and Hamilton/Motherwell - are all in the top three NEF/IoS regions (the South West, Scotland and Wales). And of Strathclyde's top 20 non-metropolitan districts (Perth & Kinross; Kyle & Carrick; South Lakeland; Dacorum; Basingstoke & Deane; Northampton; York; Eastleigh; Exeter; South Norfolk; Ogwr; South Somerset; Stroud; Scarborough; Bournemouth; Harrogate; Horsham; Poole; Dunfermline; West Lothian), 10 are in those same three regions.

Perhaps most significantly, there is a strong - though not total - correspondence between the NEF/IoS rankings and inter-regional migration patterns. The South West, which our findings indicate provides the best quality of life, experienced the greatest net inflow of population in 1993, followed by East Anglia, fifth in our rankings. Wales and Scotland, fourth and fifth in the official table of migration "magnets", came third and second, respectively, in the NEF/IoS quality of life rankings. The West Midlands did badly in both, while the South East, incorporating Greater London, comes next to the bottom of the migration table. Overall, it seems, people are making similar quality of life judgements to those reflected in our rankings, and then voting on them with their feet.

Some of the findings may give readers pause for thought. Northern Ireland, for example, scores well in many categories, not least for tranquillity and security - a result that appears to ignore more than two decades of civil strife. Statistics, however, take little account of ethnic divisions or newspaper headlines. The quality of life in Ulster, as anyone who knows the province will confirm, is in many respects very satisfying. Fear of crime is lower there than anywhere else in the UK, while Greater London has a recorded rate of violent crime more than twice as high as Northern Ireland's.

In any case, the dominant position of the South West is scarcely in doubt. In nine of the 11 categories, it is ranked in the top four, and in three - environment, health and community - it is the outright winner. Even those categories in which it performs relatively poorly are a measure of its success. Its housing, for instance, is relatively expensive, and its population grew faster than all other regions except East Anglia during the Eighties. Both, in their different ways, are a measure of excess demand and limited supply. People want to live in the South West: the challenge for the region lies in managing those pressures so that they do not destroy the quality of life that generates them.

Greater London, by contrast, comes a consistently poor bottom, only partially redeemed by its cultural attractions. Out of our 11 categories, it scores lowest on five. Its housing is the most expensive and least spacious. Its low levels of private car usage - a measure of its public transport system - are more than offset by long commuting times; it thus scores worst on transport. Crime, and fear of it, is greater in London than anywhere else. Its "misery index" - a combination of unemployment and the cost of living - is by far the highest in the UK. It is above average for sunshine hours but has little natural landscape of any quality and suffers badly from road blight. On both our measures of community, it scores well below the UK average and is ranked 11th out of 12. Only in health and population - the latter, somewhat paradoxically, a reflection of population loss and decreasing densities during the Eighties - is it placed in the top half of the rankings.

Critics might object that the poor performance of London understates its role as a great capital, a place of culture and pageantry and resonance. What about the night-life - the theatres, restaurants and clubs? What of Dr Johnson's well-worn dictum that "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life"?

For the chattering metropolitan classes - to which Dr Johnson undeniably belonged - London may still appear to be the centre of the universe. The chattering classes, however, tend to have high incomes, a pleasant home in a leafy neighbourhood and, perhaps, a weekend cottage in the country: they can select from the cultural menu, reduce their exposure to crime. For the mass of folk who keep the capital going - the waiters and secretaries and bus-drivers - such choices are not possible. For them, crime and congestion, or the fear of them, mean that the attractions of a night out always have to be balanced against the problem of getting home afterwards. Arguably, those who get the best out of London, apart from the moneyed classes with a foot in both town and country, are those who savour it briefly - tourists, visitors - and then retreat to the safety and scenery of the shires.

If the NEF/IoS rankings favour rural areas with high scenic quality, this merely reflects one of the fundamental themes of modern urban geography and demography, which is the urge to escape the city. Cities - London, especially - may be good places to live if you are young, rootless and fancy-free, but most people have a dream of something different.

In the first half of this century, 10 million people moved out from city to suburb in Britain. Yet this was clearly only a staging post to a more distant destination. In the early Seventies, the distinguished geographer Peter Hall and his colleagues interviewed people on their "desired future place of residence" - eight per cent listed towns, 29 per cent suburbs and 59 per cent "country". Between 1960 and 1990, another 3 million people left the cities, many of them leapfrogging the suburbs into the villages and market towns beyond. Twenty years after Hall's study, however, the appetite for Arcadia seems undimmed. A survey in 1992 by the market research group Mintel found that 4 million people expected to leave the cities for a more rural area over the next five years - but that 13 million actually wanted to.

What explains this disenchantment with urban life? How much is push - crime, pollution, noise - and how much pull? The evidence suggests many more complex factors at work - the search for spacious living, the desire for a more "human scale" existence, the urge to be close to nature, its moods and seasons. And the consistently high performance of the South West may indicate that the relationship between place, quality of life and social efficiency is much more comprehensive than hitherto imagined or than statistics can capture. Could there, in other words, be a curative or preventive value in a beautiful landscape or a clean environment? Does it have a positive effect on personal, social, and therefore economic, performance?

Much of this must remain speculation. Nevertheless, it suggests that the character or spirit of a place - what the landscapists of the 18th century called its genius loci - will play an increasing role in our choice of where to live. And if our rankings are a guide to how people are behaving - and will continue to behave - the human geography of Britain is set for some fundamental changes in the decades to come.

! The New Economics Foundation, founded in 1986, is a leading green think-tank. Its aim is to promote new approaches to economics which "put people and the environment first". It has developed Britain's first "quality of life index"; an index of sustainable economic welfare; and also promotes ecological tax reform and social auditing of organisations. A complete guide to new social and environmental indicators is available from NEF for pounds 17 (including p & p), together with details of how to support the Foundation's work. Write to NEF, 1st Floor, Vine Court, 112-116 Whitechapel Road, London E1 1JE (tel: 0171-377 5696/ fax: 0171-377 5720).

There is nothing inherently stressful about population density - but increasing density causes many pressures: on schools and roads, on countryside, on house prices. The scores on this map were arrived at by comparing densities in 1993 with those in 1981, awarding 10 points to the region with the smallest increase, 0 to the area with the largest increase, and distributing the scores for the remaining regions proportionately between 0-10. (This method of scoring, essentially the system for marking most exams, is used throughout.) The drawback of this category is that it penalises popular regions; but the search for less crowded living is too important a motivator to ignore. In a sense, the map is predictive rather than descriptive; it shows where quality of life may be at risk, and also where there is scope - as in the cities - to improve it. (Source: Regional Trends.)

The map above shows the overall distribution of quality of life in Britain. The rankings were arrived at by combining the results of the 11 other analyses illustrated on these two pages. The criteria measured were selected largely on the basis of previous studies of quality of life, particularly the 1988 study by Strathclyde University Quality of Life Group which identified the main measures by which people judge quality of life. For a full explanation of the scoring system used, see 'Population Density' (right). More detailed analyses of the best and worst regions - the South-West and Greater London - are shown on pages 9 and 10 respectively

The average household now demands more space than ever before. Children want their own rooms; more people are working from home; affluence has generated more "clutter". The price of building land means that in some areas - the South East in particular - houses and room sizes have been getting smaller. Research, however, suggests that one of the main reasons people move is in order to acquire bigger houses and gardens. Using the same scoring method as before - awarding 10 and 0 for the top and bottom regions and distributing the scores for the remainder proportionately between the two - this map measures how many square metres of housing pounds 1,000 will buy. It is thus a more complex method of assessing housing quality than the average house price yardstick. (Sources: Department of the Environment/Regional Trends.)

Employment, affordable goods and services and reasonable working hours are all components of a decent quality of life. But how hard do you have to work in order to pay for food, clothing and leisure? And if you are working excessive hours, how much is family life suffering? There are three components to the conclusions illustrated by this map. The first is the unemployment rate in an area. The second is the cost of living as measured by a 'basket' of goods and services - which shows how much income is needed to sustain a particular lifestyle. Together, these two make up a 'misery index'. The third factor is working hours - assessed on the basis that longer working hours mean a lower quality of life. All three were scored on the same 10-to-the-best, 0-to-the-worst basis. The map amalgamates all three. (Sources: Regional Trends/Reward.)

Health - physical and mental - is an important measure of social and environmental stress, and also - though to a lesser extent - of the efficiency of the local health service. It is increasingly related to pollution (see maps for environment and transport). Research by Strathclyde University has shown that health is ranked second, behind violent and non-violent crime, among factors which people consider important to the quality of their lives. This map measures two factors. First, it measures physical health by counting the standard mortality ratio of a region - the number of deaths as a percentage of the (hypothetical) number that would have occurred if the population had experienced the UK average. Second, it measures mental health by comparing the suicide and open verdict rates per 100,000 population for men and women. (Source: Regional Trends.)

There is evidence to suggest that, in an age when the variations in performance between schools are coming under the spotlight through standard assessment tests and Government league tables, finding the right school for one's children is playing an increasing role in decisions about where to live (within some regions, it is even responsible for substantial rises in house prices). According to Strathclyde University's research, people are more concerned about education provision than about employment prospects or wage levels. Although ministers may dispute it, most teachers and educationalists agree that lower class sizes mean more efficient teaching, better discipline and improved performance. Another measure of educational quality is pupils' examination records. Two indices are combined in this map: average class size; and the GCSE achievement of pupils in a region, measured against the UK average. (Source: Regional Trends.)

Culture is difficult to integrate into a quality of life rating system because of difficulties of definition and because of varying patterns of usage. Nearly half of Britain's total cinema audience, for example, is made up of those aged 15-24, who account for only a sixth of the population. And does watching television, our most popular leisure activity, count as culture? If so, does its virtually universal availability cancel out geographical differences - or are some regions better served than others? Despite these difficulties, it is probably fair to express relative degrees of cultural choice in terms of access to traditional cultural centres. The map shown above is based on data in Guinness's Top Towns survey comparing the total number of exhibition spaces, cinemas, theatres and concert halls in each area. (Source: Top Towns, Guinness, pounds 9.99.)

Research at Strathclyde University ranked access to high quality scenery as seventh in a list of factors people consider most important. Several factors are involved in this map. There is a 'scenic surroundings index' - the area of National Park or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty per person in a region. There is also an index of road 'blight', which measures the length of road in a region - and also the length of the corridor of blight this causes - and divides the sum by the total land area. (Minor roads are excluded; trunk roads are considered to have 2km of blight on each side, principal roads 1km.) The final element in the equation is hours of sunshine. Final scores are arrived at by adding the sunshine hours index to the scenic surroundings index, then subtracting the road blight index. (Source: Regional Trends/Department of Transport.)

Neighbourliness - a sense of belonging to a place - is hard to quantify, but it plays a significant economic role and can have many spin- offs, from preventing crime to keeping an eye on children or the elderly. The assumed neighbourliness of smaller communities is part of the appeal of village life. This map measures the proportion of people taking part in voluntary work in a region and combines it with the number of local exchange trading systems (LETS) per million population. LETS are schemes in which people exchange skills and services through local 'cashless' currencies. There are now over 300 LETS in Britain and, although many of us may never have come across them, they provide a simple but effective measure of the formation of new social networks of co-operation. (Sources: LetsLink UK/Regional Trends.)

A good public transport system can help to reduce road traffic congestion and pollution (matters of increasing concern in the light of recent research on the health effects of traffic fumes). It is also essential to the efficient functioning of the urban areas in which more than four- fifths of us live. Long commuting times, meanwhile, whether by bus, car or train, add to human stress, as well as environmental stress. This map analyses both of these variables. It measures the percentage of all journeys which are made by private car: regions with low car usage score higher (the implication being that public transport is more satisfactory). It also incorporates a commuting time index, penalising the regions where there are the longest journeys in terms of time between homes and places of work. (Source: National Travel Survey.)

In the 1988 study by Strathclyde University, pollution came third, after crime and health, in a list of factors that people consider important to the quality of their lives; and, with between 4 and 5 million Britons now belonging to environmental groups, concern on such matters can only have increased. A recent survey by the Association of London Government found that 'unpolluted environment' ranked top of a list of factors in which London was performing badly. Six factors are combined in this map: quality of rivers and canals; noise levels; and concentrations in the air of four important pollutants - black smoke, sulphur dioxide, surface ozone and nitrogen. The bulk of such pollution is produced by road traffic. (Sources: Department of the Environment/Building Research Establishment/Expert Panel on Air Quality Standards.)

Crime routinely comes top of the list in studies in which people are asked about the factors that they take into account when evaluating the quality of their lives. This map gives equal value to four factors: rates of violent crime; sexual offences; burglaries notified to the police per 100,000 people; and levels of 'fear of crime'. Four sets of data for insecurity were used for the last category, measuring proportions of men and women, aged 16-59 and over 60, who say that they feel very, or fairly, unsafe when walking alone at night. Greater London consistently registered the greatest fear of crime, as well as the worst figures for violence and sexual offences. The North West and the West Midlands also registered particularly high levels of fear of crime. (Source: Regional Trends.)

Simply the best: if the South West is Britain's most desirable region, Wiltshire (seen above at Castle Combe) is comfortably the most attractive within it. Only Devon comes anywhere near its ranking. Wiltshire's advantages are material rather than spiritual: it has the highest standard of living in the region; Cornwall has the lowest. The rankings on this map were calculated in the same way as those for Britain as a whole (see pages 6 and 7). They are slightly less precise, however, as they do not include rankings for housing, security or environment, for which suitable data are not available

Capital punishment? Our study suggests that Londoners who feel tired of their city may have good reason. But some boroughs are more tiresome than others. Tower Hamlets (photographed above) had the worst overall ranking, narrowly beating off the challenge of two other notorious boroughs, Lambeth and Hackney. Tower Hamlets scored worst on standard of living (32nd), health (31st) and education (31st). The highest scoring boroughs - Richmond, Bromley, Kingston-upon-Thames - have also scored highly in other surveys of this nature, notably the recent Guinness Top Towns survey