After a decade of austerity, Hartepool is looking to Preston for a new economic model

Hartlepool. Image: Getty.

Since the Lancashire city of Preston was named “most improved urban area” last November, the “Preston Model” has been attracting excitement in the Labour party and local government circles. Before this accolade, The Economist had reported from the city in October – labelling it “Jeremy Corbyn’s model town” and an “unlikely laboratory for Corbynomics”.

In the spotlight was Preston’s new local economic programme, led by the Labour-run city council and pioneered by its leader Matthew Brown, who my colleague George Eaton interviewed last year

The idea is called “community wealth building”, and basically sets up the local economy to keep as much money local as possible. It came about in Preston when a planned £700m city centre redevelopment fell through through in 2011. After this, the council decided to build an alternative growth model, based on local procurement, rather than its usual approach of chasing inward investment from large multinationals, which it argues leads to money leaking from a local area.

Beginning in 2013, and with help from the Centre for Local Economic Strategies think tank, Brown persuaded six “anchor institutions” – bodies tied to an area, like universities, colleges, housing associations, which cannot relocate – to spend their procurement budgets on Preston-based businesses, rather than outsourcing to companies headquartered in other parts of the country.

These six local public bodies went from spending £38m in Preston in 2013 to £111m by 2017. The proportion of their spending in Lancashire doubled from 39 per cent to 79 per cent. Preston city council has doubled the money it spends locally: from 14 per cent of its budget in 2012 to 28 per cent in 2016. None of this increases local spending – it simply redistributes it.

Preston city council became the first living wage employer in the north, founded a not-for-profit energy firm, established a credit union, and encourages local businesses to become co-operatives and public bodies to deal with more co-operatives. There are plans for a Lancashire-wide community bank, too.

These changes came long before Jeremy Corbyn became leader, but shadow chancellor John McDonnell has aligned himself with Preston’s innovation. He has established a Community Wealth Building Unit last February to export the Preston Model to other areas, announced a proposal for worker “ownership funds” in private companies at the last Labour conference, and featured Preston’s story in a pamphlet entitled “Alternative Models of Ownership” ahead of the 2017 election.

***

Now the north east coastal town of Hartlepool is in touching distance of being next in line to the Preston Model. The Hartlepool Fabians – set up by members of the local Labour party in early 2018, and including prospective councillors, sitting councillors and trade unionists – have consulted Preston’s Matthew Brown and produced a fully fleshed-out policy proposal for a “Hartlepool Model”.

They are part of a majority of Hartlepool Constituency Labour Party delegates –described by one councillor, since resigned, as “power crazy individuals”- who want to see a change of leadership on the Labour-controlled council, and attempted unsuccessfully to oust Hartlepool Borough Council’s leader Christopher Akers-Belcher in a vote of no-confidence last November.

They have, however, deselected four sitting councillors, including the mayor, and expect their faction to dominate the council after the local elections in May, so that they can carry out their plan.

A23-page document entitled “The Hartlepool Model of Community Wealth Creation” has not yet been published, but has been seen by the New Statesman. It posits that residents’ prospects will be improved by “inward-facing” investment and procurement, and looks to “forge a future in which they benefit fully from as much of the town’s economic activity as possible”.

The plan includes approaching private “anchor institutions” like the offshore engineering company Heerema, Camerons Brewery and electronics manufacturer Stadium Group PLC to alter their procurement practices, and to group smaller firms together into “purchasing blocks”. It also outlines how to encourage more worker-owned firms, suggesting favourable business rates, a town-wide credit union and a community bank.

The paper reveals the number of unoccupied commercial and industrial properties in the town (1,727 and 430, respectively) available for use. And it proposes using Hartlepool’s “heritage and identity” as a unique selling point to attract entrepreneurs, partly by shifting more investment into arts and culture in the town, partly by promoting other positives: “Low rents, cheap costs of living, the inherent benefits of coastal life: all could be well-marketed to attract a new breed of skilled professional.”

Although it will be a “gradual shift”, the paper’s authors conclude that, “real and rapid gains can be made: through no additional expense or expenditure, money can be injected into Hartlepool’s economy, almost immediately”.

***

Hartlepool has been hit hard by austerity, with spending levels slashed by 33 per cent from 2010-17 – the 24th highest in the country – and central government funding expected to fall by 45 per cent by 2020. Seaside towns are among the most deprived communities in the UK, with Hartlepool one of ten local authorities in Great Britain with the highest unemployment rate in 2017.

This is why the new economic plan is “essential”, according to a local English teacher and Labour member Gary Wootton, who founded the Hartlepool Fabians last year. “Hartlepool – typical of northern, coastal, post-industrial and predominantly white working-class towns – has been neglected during decades of economic policy focused on generating wealth elsewhere,” he tells me.


“Austerity politics and London-centric economic policy is shortening lives in places like Hartlepool. They must be afforded the opportunity to attempt innovative economic models, premised on cooperative models of ownership and socially responsible corporate behaviour.”

Wootton, who hopes the council will pursue the plans after new councillors are elected in May, calls the model “pragmatic socialism”. He adds that it took its inspiration from the “Cleveland Model” in the US – a pioneer for this type of economic programme, in which an industrial-scale laundry was set up as a co-operative in 2009 – as well as Preston.

Globally, from the American rust belt to the north east of England, it looks as if in-sourcing, competitive co-operatives and democratising local economies are gaining traction as a response to inequality and decline.

From a British political perspective, the Hartlepool story is unusual, as its local Labour party’s attempted coup is not a result of Momentum or a surge of Corbynite members. Here, it’s the Fabians making life difficult for their council. The Preston Model began before the term “Corbynomics” existed, and the Hartlepool Model policy proposal eschews that description:

“It moves beyond dominant Labour contemporary thought, and builds on an under-developed aspect of Ed Miliband’s proposals, reflecting the very real potential that public procurement has as a means of promoting and furthering social justice.”

Hartlepool will, however, provide the Labour leadership with more ammunition for its ideas of radicalising local economies.

Hartlepool Borough Council has been approached for a response.

UPDATE

A day after it was informed about these plans, a Hartlepool Borough Council spokesperson told me that the council itself has been exploring changes to its economic model, working with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies think tank that helped develop the Preston Model.

They told me: “The Council and Hartlepool’s Health and Wellbeing Board is working with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies to further develop ways in which we can use public sector spending to invest in our local economy.”

There are no further details forthcoming, but it seems pressure from local activists as well as inspiration from Preston and elsewhere means Hartlepool is the place to watch for the next “laboratory for Corbynomics”.

This article first appeared on our sister site the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.