Migrants don’t undermine communities – and four other lessons from the best planning research

A man on an electric bike in Vienna, 2013. Image: Getty.

Academic researchers are often accused of not providing useful answers to real-world problems – but the projects that won the Royal Town Planning Institute research awards this week offer many interesting insights into topical issues. Here are five things we learnt.

Migrants don’t undermine communities – poor housing policy does

Immigration has become a thorny issue in many western nations and came to a fore in last year’s Brexit and Trump victories. Many reasons why communities do not welcome migrants have been put forward – xenophobia, pressure on local services, gradual loss of a share sense of community, to name but a few.

But a study by Dr Zheng Wang and colleagues from the Bartlett School of Planning at University College London on the impact of internal migration on neighbourhoods in Shanghai reveals something different.

Based on a survey of hundreds of households, the study finds that older and poorer neighbourhoods where migrants tend to settle can have low levels of social cohesion – but this is because these neighbourhoods are often targets for redevelopment. In other words, insecurity among residents about displacement predates the influx of migrants.

Indeed, neighbourhoods that have a longer history of welcoming migrants have higher levels of cohesion, and those neighbourhoods with the most migrants are also the most cohesive.

The researchers suggest that redevelopment needs to prioritise the attachment to place that existing residents have, and avoid rampant demolition. Perhaps that’s a useful lesson for the UK as well.

We can build more affordable homes – but we need to be realistic about just how long it takes

With planning permissions consistently on the up but number of houses still way too low to meet demand, many are asking: what is stopping the homes we need from getting built? Planning consultancy Lichfields has examined the data for 70 sites outside London across England and Wales to identify how quickly they can deliver, and what is stopping them.

Contrary to assumptions, the viability of affordable housing is not necessarily a barrier. Indeed, affordable housing supports higher rates of delivery – a 40 per cent increase in the annual build rate for large sites that deliver 30 per cent or more affordable housing, compared to those delivering much less.

One explanation is that affordable housing meets a different type of demand (it doesn’t undermine private market demand), and having an immediate purchaser of multiple properties (say a Registered Social Landlord) can provide cash flow and reduce risk for developers.

Large sites, while being able to deliver more homes per year over a longer time period and reduce pressure on undesirable piecemeal developments, also take longer to get going. Local authorities need to recognise this, for example, by allocating more sites with a good mix of types and sizes, and being realistic about how fast they will deliver so that consistent supply is maintained over time.

Physical space matters to the digital economy

This one comes from a study into Shoreditch’s ‘Tech City’ in East London by Juliana Martins from the Bartlett School of Planning at UCL. It reveals that, while their portfolios may be virtual, digital workers value the office, other workspaces and events (collectively, ‘extended workplaces’) for their critical role in fostering interaction and collaboration. These interactions are especially important for fluid, constantly evolving technology-based industries.

Martins’ work shows that planners and others need to go beyond the clichés if they are going to create the conditions for the creative economy. Rather than a superficial sense on how creatives like to consume (for example, coffee shops), planners need to focus on how the industries they are part of like to produce and behave as a social group, for example their tendency to seek ways to create exclusivity and build shared identity – think member-only workspaces, access to secret gigs and so on.

Cities trying to attract these industries need to ensure adequate supply of physical brick and mortar space, but also need to beware of the potential social divisions they can create.

Big data is resetting traditional geographical boundaries

Mega-regions have long been understood in geography as cities connected by their economies and infrastructure. But does this way conglomerating places really reflect what is happening on the ground?

Alasdair Rae from Sheffield University and Garrett Nelson from Dartmouth College have used five years’ worth of commuting data to create nothing less than a new economic geography of the United States.

Mmmm, maps. 

By exploiting very large datasets – in this case the daily work journeys of more than 130m Americans – for the first time the researchers have identified commuter-based mega-regions in a way that is much more useful for, say, deciding where to invest in regional transport connections.

One implication of the research is that familiar boundaries – such as cities and state lines – are less significant than we tend think, and new connections are identified more easily. For example, Florida is split into three areas: the (northern) panhandle is really part of the Alabama mega-region, central Florida is a separate region, while south Florida (centred on Miami) is effectively an entirely different economy.

The better that policymakers and planners can understand how places really work, the better they can plan for them of course, including infrastructure, transportation and even the geography of elections.

E-bikes could get more older people cycling

Nearly one in ten journeys taken by older people in Germany are by bike. In the UK, it’s only one in a hundred. Cycling could make an important contribution to active ageing, good health and prolonged independence for older people. So how can we get them cycle, and keep them cycling?

A project led by Tim Jones at Oxford Brookes University shows that alongside cycling training and better street design (which older people should be consulted on), electric bicycles can reduce the fear of difficult junctions and hills, and can have huge impact in increasing uptake of cycling among older people.

No solution was presented for dealing with unpredictable British weather.

Dr Mike Harris is head of research at the Royal Town Planning Institute.


Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.

Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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