Little capital: the life of wealth elites in the everyday metropolis

Read an extract from the latest issue of our research magazine, Insight. In this article Katie Higgins discusses her work exploring the 'super-rich' in the north of England.

Tram goes past old building in Manchester

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In a context of rising levels of economic inequality, there have been increasing calls to ‘study up’ and examine the rich and powerful. The hope is that in shifting the gaze upwards when considering the uneven distribution of wealth new questions can be raised about the contours of the problem.

In my research I have been trying to understand more about the ‘super-rich’ living in and around Greater Manchester (often defined as people with around $30 million+ in disposable assets). How do wealthy residents engage with the city and region they live and work in? How does wealth link with power in a smaller urban centre? What can their lives tell us about how inequalities are generated? The research seeks to better understand how wealth operates in and around a smaller, ‘provincial’ urban centre.

The fieldwork has involved interviewing wealthy individuals, a group often absent from social research, and detailing their family histories, life course, and everyday geographies. I have also become interested in philanthropy, which appears to be an important element of how they present their lives. Alongside these interviews, I have started to trace the wider social relationships of this group, through wide-ranging conversations with their intermediaries, including private wealth managers, architects, journalists, charity fund-raisers and estate agents. Another method to build a picture of their lives has been spending time at various events, clubs and societies they frequent, as well as exploring affluent residential and commercial districts in the region.

One preliminary theme that has emerged from my research has been the gendered performance of patronage for the region’s towns and cities. ‘Mr Oldham’, ‘Mr Wigan’ and ‘Mr Manchester’ are reeled off in conversations about wealthy male individuals who channel parts of their wealth into propping up local theatres, youth services and even high streets. Their names adorn buildings and populate local quangos and civic boards, animating the intimate networks between state and capital. Regional wealth elites, such as these, are often overlooked as urban actors but raise important questions about which voices are prioritised in decision-making, how we fund civic infrastructure and the role that locally embedded elites play in the transition of regional economies.

In a world marked by the coronavirus crisis, the changing fortunes and urban influence of wealth elites will likely be one way of tracking how economic inequalities are reproduced and reconfigured.

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