Does estate renewal really boost the local economy? The evidence suggests otherwise

The late lamented Heygate Estate in south London, back in 2010. Image: Getty.

Can estate renewal improve economic performance? It’s an important question given the tendency of policy makers to claim these economic benefits – even if the main aims of these projects are to improve the quality of housing, rather than to grow the local economy. 

Unfortunately, our recent evidence review for the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth suggested that the measurable economic impacts on local economies – in terms of employment, wages or deprivation – tend not to be large. Often, they are zero.  

I was a little surprised, therefore, when the following headline popped up in my Twitter feed: “Government regeneration schemes add to productivity and growth. The Gorbals proves it”.

The piece in question, published earlier this week on CityMetric, summarises findings from a working paper by the Royal Town Planning Institute, which looked at the impact of the Gorbals renewal. Does this report, as the headline suggests, prove that such schemes add to productivity and growth? Unfortunately not. There are reasons to interpret these findings with extreme caution.

First, the study doesn’t actually measure productivity or growth. Instead, it looks at the percentage of the population that are income or employment deprived.

These are not measures of productivity. And while employment can contribute to growth, very local changes in employment as a result of area based schemes are hard to interpret (as we explain in our public realm briefing). 

Second, the study doesn’t provide a before and after comparison. Instead, it looks at changes from 2000 onwards. This is problematic for a scheme starting in 1990, because we simply don’t know what happened in the first decade of the project. What if anyone that could – often the richest – moved away from the area to avoid the disruption that came with regeneration? In this case, changes from 2000 onwards would overestimate the impact of the scheme.

If, instead, the poorest families tended to be relocated early on, then the changes 2000 onwards will underestimate the impact. This is why we emphasise the importance of before and after changes.

Third, the study doesn’t use a convincing control group: an area suffering from similar problems, ideally both in terms of levels and changes, that for some reason happens not to get a renewal programme, while Gorbals does.

In fact, the study looks at one scheme and one not very well justified control area. This is a problem because, even if the scheme has no effect on outcomes, there’s still a 50 per cent chance it’ll do better than the comparison area. 

This is the reason why impact evaluations look at multiple schemes and control areas. In fact, in this kind of “ex-post” study you can easily make the treated area look better simply by choosing a control area that has done worse over time.

The studies that we look at in our impact reviews avoid these problems. We considered over 1,000 studies claiming to measure economic impact, but found only 21 that meet our inclusion criteria.

These studies suggest that estate renewal programmes can increase property prices and rents – but they have limited impact in terms of improving income or employment.

What evidence is available is also pretty pessimistic on other outcomes. Evaluations that consider broader outcomes find that schemes tend to do little to reduce crime, raise levels of health and wellbeing, or improve educational outcomes among people living on estates. 

Of course, that’s not to dispute the value of these projects in terms of improving the quality of housing and some aspects of the neighbourhoods that people live in. And with a larger body of proper evaluations, we might find convincing evidence of broader positive effects.

But the evidence that currently exists suggests that renewal schemes don’t boost the local economy. This doesn’t mean that we should stop doing estate renewal projects – but it does mean that we should be realistic about what such projects will achieve.

Professor Henry Overman is director of the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth and a professor of geography at the London School of Economics.

 
 
 
 

Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.