To bring back trust in politics, Britain needs a local measure of GDP

Sheffield by night. Image: Benedict Hunjan/Wikimedia Commons.

The Indigo Prize was created to find a better way of measuring the economy than the traditional GDP. In his entry, Tom Forth explained why the competition was asking the wrong question.

On 7 July, in the Financial Times, Tim Harford argued that the simplest innovations often create the most value. It’s a familiar and beautiful story, and it doesn’t take much thinking to agree that toilets probably matter more than a web-connected thermostat.

On 8 July, in the London Evening Standard, some of the the creators of the Indigo Prize explained why a better measure of progress than GDP is worth £100,000. And again, it doesn’t take much thinking to agree that what matters in our lives is family, friends, health, purpose, and happiness. They certainly matter more than the number of pounds in the national GDP measure that makes the headlines every quarter, and fills discussions in between.

There’s an important link between these two pieces. Here, in just over a fifth of the 5000 words that I’m allowed to win the big prize, I’ll explain it.

GDP works

Add up every hair cut, glass of water, pint of beer, bicycle tyre, bank account fee, pet insurance policy, bus journey, electricity bill, contact lens, tank of petrol, dentist appointment, pay packet, business investment, rent bill, and much much more, and you get a country’s GDP.

If you want to compare one country with another you adjust for the difference in how much things cost in each: that’s called PPP (“purchasing power parity”) or PPS (“purchasing power standards”). If you want to compare a country today with itself in the past, you also adjust for the difference in how much things cost: that’s called real terms or constant prices.

And if you make some adjustments for how well the GDP is shared within a country, you get inequality-adjusted GDP. Well, you would, if someone had invented it: I’m sure that The Indigo Prize will get many such suggestions.

But an inequality-adjusted GDP, or a sustainable GDP, or a fair-trade GDP are like the web-connected thermostats that many of us mock. They are complicated, exciting, new, fresh, and just not very important. They are what you get if you try and solve a problem with technology without asking the right people what the problem was.

GDP is a simple idea. The details are hard, but we’ve got good at them in the past 70 years or so. Most importantly, it works. Famously, the human development index correlates almost perfectly with it.

And when you think about it, the correlation shouldn’t be a surprise. People and societies prioritise the things that really matter to them. The more money they have, the more that they can do, and the further down their list of priorities they can get.

So GDP is a great measure of what really matters – as long as we trust people to spend their money on what matters to them. I do.


GDP is like toilets

What’s really lacking from our current measures of GDP is the same as what’s lacking with our current toilets. There are too many places where you can’t find a good one.

Today two-thirds of people have access to a toilet. It’s a remarkable achievement, but it’s not good enough. The unglamorous task of getting toilets to the remaining third of humanity matters more than almost anything else. Try Rose George's book Adventures in the World of Human Waste if you need convincing. You'll be convinced in the first chapter.

It’s the same with GDP. Today, the majority of people in the world have access to a national GDP measure. But far too few know how their local economy, and thus their wider community’s wellbeing, is changing.

For years I’ve built free tools that give people a slightly better idea of how their economy is doing. People in Wales can see how their economy came to perform as well as Estonia’s. People in Greater Manchester can see how their economy came to perform as well as Spain’s. People in South Yorkshire can see how their economy performs about as well as Portugal's.

And yet we know that these numbers aren’t good enough. They are available far too slowly; the best data we have for South Yorkshire's GDP today is from 2015. We will get 2016's estimates in December 2017. We also don’t collect enough data on consumption and production locally, we don’t look hard enough at what things people buy, and we don’t measure how much those things cost in different places. So our local measures of GDP don't take into account local inflation.

The ONS know this: its RSTI (Regional Short Term Indicators) project is trying to fix it, and in December 2018 England will get its first ever timely estimates of regional GVA. Still not quite GDP, but closer.

We need to go further, in more places, and all over the world. We need to make this a priority, because we have seen what happens when we cannot produce measurements that are relevant to the communities that people live in: they stop listening.

Fixing GDP

Fixing GDP is like fixing toilets. We need more of the same, not something new and fancy.

If Iceland can measure real GDP for its 330,000 people every quarter, and if Estonia can measure real GDP for its 1.3m people every quarter, then it’s not good enough that much larger parts of the UK, and many other parts of the world, have much worse data.

I’ll end with just one of the many reasons why I think that this is important.

Scotland calculates its own GDP figures and debates them vigorously. My home region of Yorkshire, with an equal population, doesn’t calculate its own GDP, and is rightly uninterested in the weak proxies that are available.

This matters enormously. GDP, the favourite measure of economists, isn’t relevant to the people of Yorkshire. It is certainly not relevant to the people of Bradford or Barnsley. And so, since everyone lives in a place not a country, UK GDP figures are not relevant to most of the UK.

People can feel this. They correctly feel that their lives are not reflected in public debates. This influences the trust that they have in economists, and in those politicians that rely on economists' arguments and data.

The UK has had two extremely important referendums in recent years. In the first, Scotland took the option recommended by most economists, to remain in the UK. In the second, Scotland again took the option recommended by most economists, to remain in the EU. But England, especially areas like mine in Yorkshire – those areas most poorly informed by the data collected by our national economists – took the option that most economists did not recommend. We voted to leave the EU.

If economists want people to listen to them again, they should dump plans for a new measure of well-being. To return to my analogy, they should stop dreaming about internet-connected thermostats and get on with building more toilets. They should make sure that never again do they talk about economic collapse in Greece while celebrating the UK's success, unaware that South Yorkshire's economy was collapsing nearly as quickly.

 Economists should use the methods that we already have to make GDP relevant to more of the people of Britain, and then spread this to more of the world. If the goal of economic measures is to inform people better about their current situation, then providing them with local GDPs will achieve much more than providing them with a national inequality-adjusted GDP, a national sustainable GDP, or a national fair-trade GDP. But as a suggestion, it’s not likely to win any prizes.

Sadly, this essay did not win the Indigo Prize.

Tom Forth runs a software company called imactivate and is an associate at ODILeeds. He tweets as @thomasforth. This post first appeared on his blog.

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.