The problem of Herefordshire: on the difficulty of fairly representing small places

The River Wye in Herefordshire. Image: AnitaHolford/Wikimedia Commons.

One of the odder things that I witnessed this past political conference season: an event on the Labour fringe being hijacked by what seemed to be some sort of Herefordshire Popular Front.

The event in question was on the rise of the metro mayor, and what it meant for Britain’s cities. But almost as soon as the chair invited questions, a man from Herefordshire popped up to complain that this focus on cities would cause us to forget about areas that were not, in fact, cities.

Shortly afterwards, a woman raised her hand, to make exactly the same point (she turned out to be married to the first questioner). A third person – not, to my knowledge, from Herefordshire – complained that the rise of mayors would simply turn the regional cities into “mini-Londons”, although exactly what this meant (rich? Good public transport?) wasn’t exactly clear.

At any rate: the point that come through loud and clear was that any party which aspires to government mustn’t forget Herefordshire and other largely rural counties.

The problem is, there are two reasons why Herefordshire rarely features in Labour thinking. One is that the party barely exists there. Herefordshire council has 27 Tories, nine independents, two LibDems, three Greens and 10 representatives of the intriguingly named “It’s OUR County!” party. It doesn’t have a single Labour councillor, and its two parliamentary constituencies are both safe Tory holds. It’s not crazy that Labour isn’t giving that much thought to Herefordshire.

There’s another reason this is true: to the first approximation, nobody lives in Herefordshire. It has a population of around 190,000, which is nothing, really: under 0.3 per cent of the UK population. If it were an urban area, which it very obviously isn’t, it’d be the 40th largest in Britain, slightly above such bustling metropolises as Crawley and Swindon.

We can take that further. There are 10 boroughs in Greater Manchester. Herefordshire has fewer people than nine of them, and roughly ties with Bury. London has 32 boroughs. Herefordshire’s population is roughly on a par with that of the 29th largest, Richmond-upon-Thames.

The reason I’m banging on about this – see, you knew I’d get to a point eventually – is because it doesn’t feel to me like we treat these two units of roughly equal population as the same. Demanding attention for Herefordshire at a political conference feels silly, but it doesn’t feel ridiculous: of course we can’t go ignoring entire counties.

Now imagine someone standing up to demand attention for Richmond-upon-Thames, or the Metropolitan Borough of Bury. It doesn’t work, does it? Somehow a county has something – a landmass; an identity – that gives it weight beyond its population, a right to be heard.

Except – does it? Why do the 190,000 people who live in Herefordshire deserve more attention than the 190,000 people who live in Bury? Why should one matter more than the other?

This is a less theoretical problem than one might suppose. We hear a lot in British politics about the over-mightiness of London, which is fair enough, really: the capital does dominate national political life to an unusual and damaging extent.

But there’s another part of the UK that also, I think, gets attention out of proportion to its actual population. Scotland (pop: 5.4m) doesn’t get as much attention as London (pop: 8.8m), of course. But its internal politics gets vastly more coverage than that of any other area of the UK, even though several – Yorkshire, the West Midlands and the North West, to name but three – have more people.

So why do people from those regions get angrier about the way London warps national debate around itself than they do about Scotland doing the same? Partly it’s because London’s dominance is greater; partly because hated of the capital is a fairly universal phenomenon.

But also, I suspect, it’s something else, summed up by the response you tend to get if you point out to a Scottish nationalist that there are lot more people in London than in Scotland: the latter is a nation, the former merely a city. There’s something there – a history, an identity – that gives it a weight beyond its mere population size.

This tendency to privilege some sorts of identity over others is a natural and fairly universal impulse. Sovereign states get one seat at the UN regardless of population, and Germany and Malta are both EU members, even though the former is around 190 times the size of the latter. All 50 states get the same number of US senators, even though their populations vary by a factor of 67.

But it bothers me, nonetheless. Luxembourg and Malta are not as important as Germany and France. And when it comes to government policy, London should get more attention than Scotland: including its commuter belt, it has over twice the people, and contributes far more to the UK’s growth and prosperity. From a purely utilitarian, sum-of-human-happiness point of view, London matters more. Bugger nationhood: it’s simply a property of the maths. In the same way, it’s not that I think we can ignore Herefordshire, I just think it’s less important than, say, Milton Keynes.

I’m aware this is a difficult area, that historic identities are important, that population size isn’t everything. Nonetheless, I think population size is most things, and that we are more prone to under- rather than -over-playing its importance.

Don’t believe me? Look at the United States election of 2016, where Hillary Clinton got 3m more votes than Donald Trump. So why is the latter president right now? Because the US electoral system gives disproportionate weight to states with tiny populations.

I don’t want to overstate this: I’m just saying that paying too much attention to Herefordshire could literally bring about nuclear war with North Korea, that’s all.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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To fix the housing crisis, we need to decide what success would look like

Building houses in Ilford, 1947. Image: Getty.

Recent years have seen growing public and political recognition that there is a crisis in housing. This has led to a widening debate on the causes and potential solutions.

However, within this debate there has been little in the way of a consensus view of what constitutes the current housing crisis – or what a “crisis-free” housing system might look like. There seems little clear idea of any measurable goal. The nearest we have as a target to aim at has been a series of aspirational numbers for new-build homes, with limited clarity on what to expect if we were to hit those numbers.

Clarity about what success would look like is essential. Without a framework for what we need and want from housing, our ability to understand and fix it appropriately will be compromised. A lack of clarity also increases the risk of unintended consequences from misguided policy interventions.

The current housing debate is, to quote UCL’s Michael Edwards, “bedevilled by rival simplifications”. There are several, quite often competing explanations for why we have a housing crisis. For many it is our failure to build homes at the same rate as projected household formation. This failure might be assigned to the planning system, the greenbelt, housebuilder business models, the land market, or NIMBYs.

For others, the crisis is a result of falling interest rates, rising credit supply, low income growth, wealth and income inequality, tax incentives, or simply our fixation on house price growth. For some, there is no shortage of homes, rather a poor distribution. And for others there isn’t really a housing crisis.

Despite the apparent contradictions in this mix of positions, each of the arguments that support these various views may hold significant elements of truth. Housing is a complex and interconnected system within the economy and society. There is no simple single housing market: there are multiple markets defined by location, property type, tenure, and price. Therefore, there is no simple single housing crisis. Instead we have multiple overlapping issues affecting different parts of the country in different ways and to varying degrees.

There may be factors that influence all housing markets across the UK, indeed across much of the globe. There will be others that impact more locally and within specific housing sectors.

So, for instance, there is growing acceptance by many experts that the cost and availability of credit has been one of the biggest, if not the biggest, drivers of increases in national house prices over the last twenty years.

But it is not the only factor. The growth in buy-to-let has contributed to the financialisation of housing, with homes increasingly thought of as an investment rather than a place for people to live. A lack of supply is predominantly an issue for London and its surrounds, but there are localised shortages elsewhere, particularly of specific types or tenure of homes.

Planning (including a lack of) and the land market limit the responsiveness of supply to rising demand. Housing is unevenly distributed, mostly across generations but also spatially and within generations. Some areas don’t need a net increase in housing but desperately need existing poor-quality homes improved or replaced. In many areas the biggest issue is low (or negative) income growth and employment insecurity.

All these issues and others play a part in defining “the housing crisis”. Having a framework for what we need and want from housing, combined with an understanding of the complexities and interactions that run through the housing market, is essential to resolving the problems they create.

The problem with ‘households’

A misunderstanding of the complexities of housing can be found in one of the most frequently stated explanations for the crisis: a lack of new supply compared with household projections.

Unfortunately, this argument is flawed. Household projections are not a measure of housing demand. The effective demand for new housing is determined by the number of people or companies willing and financially able to buy property. Meanwhile new supply only accounts for around 12 per cent of total transactions and probably less of available homes for sale.

Importantly, even if some analysis may suggest there is no shortage of supply, that does not mean there is no need for new supply. Household projections are a statistical construct based on the past, not a direct measure of future housing demand. But they are still important if used appropriately within a framework for what we need and want from housing.

If we are more explicit about the role of household projections in measuring housing need and the assumptions they contain, then the ‘supply versus household projections’ argument might be recast as a debate on changing household sizes and the consumption of housing (both in terms of space and multiple properties).

This then implies that we should be clearer about the minimum acceptable amount of housing people need, while also accounting for what they want. Should younger people still expect to form households at the same rate and size as their parents? The assumptions and projections around future household sizes should be moved from the background, where they are typically only discussed by planners and researchers, to the centre of the debate.

They should be just one part of a framework for success that explicitly states what we need and want from housing – not just in terms of size but also cost, tenure, quality, security, and location – and better defines the minimum we are prepared to accept. That will provide a clearer understanding of where housing is failing to meet those requirements and help set objectives for how to fix it. These could then be applied appropriately across different markets.

“Rather than trying to return to the relatively short-lived 20th century ideal of mass home-ownership, perhaps we should be focussing our efforts on making renting cheaper”

If measurement against the framework shows that households are not able to form at an appropriate rate and size relative to what they need, then we probably need to increase supply while possibly encouraging older households to move out of larger homes. If rents are too expensive then we may need to reform the rental sectors and increase supply. If housing quality is poor, then we need to work harder at improving and replacing existing stock. If many areas are struggling due to low (or negative) income growth and employment insecurity, then we probably need to look beyond just housing. It might even question whether we need to rebalance the economy and infrastructure investment away from London and its commuter zone.

Having a framework for success may even highlight which issues we can fix and which we can’t. For example, it looks likely that we are stuck with a low interest rate and hence high house price to income market. Under those conditions, prospective first-time buyers will continue to struggle to raise a deposit and access home-ownership irrespective of how much new supply can be realistically delivered.

Rather than trying to return to the relatively short-lived 20th century ideal of mass home-ownership, perhaps we should be focussing our efforts on making renting cheaper, higher quality, and more secure as a long-term home. Increasing new supply would be an important tool in achieving that outcome.

When we have a framework for what success could look like, our ability to understand and fix housing appropriately will be dramatically improved. It would be an important step towards making housing available, affordable, and appropriate for everyone that needs it. It would also be more useful than simply setting a nice round number national target for new homes.

Neal Hudson is an independent housing analyst, who tweets as @resi_analyst. This article originally appeared on his blog.