The seven most interesting maps and charts from the Centre for Cities’ latest survey of urban Britain

Slough. All will become clear. Image: Getty.

Yesterday, while everyone was distracted by the chaos surrounding Brexit – again – the government sneaked out some remarkably crappy financial news for councils. Again.

In some ways, this was not the best timing, as the Centre for Cities had just published the latest edition of Cities Outlook, its annual report of the state of Britain’s cities, and well, the news is, hmmm. One key fact to summarise the report’s tone: in 2009-10, the last year before austerity kicked in, only four of the 62 cities it analyses, spent most of their budgets on social care; now, more than half of them do.

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So, we’re stuffed.

The report includes a whole bunch of other upsetting facts:

  • Since austerity began, Britain’s cities have seen a total funding cut of £386 per head, compared to £172 in the rest of Britain. (A quick note here: by “cities”, the report means Primary Urban areas, groups of councils representing their economic footprint.)
  • The largest cuts were in the north, where they averaged 20 per cent of their budgets. Oooh I am surprised.
  • Actually surprising, though, was that London also saw huge cuts: despite being home to just 16 per cent of the population, it swallowed 30 per cent of all council cuts.
  • Other southern English cities, by contrast, were less badly hit; they’ve also been more likely to find other sources of money, such as charging for certain services.

Taking these last three together, it’s hard to avoid a sneaking suspicion there’s some politics going on here. What London and northern cities have in common is Labour dominance; most southern cities are Tory. The motivation here is not necessarily quite as naked as that suggests – it’s likely that populations that tend to vote Labour will have other things in common, too – but nonetheless, it feels a lot like a government that’s protected its own voters while attacking everyone else.

But you’re not here for the stats are you? You’re here for the maps. So here are some of the best ones.

Towns need successful cities

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This one shows the productivity of cities (the bigger blobs) and unemployment in towns (the smaller ones). What do you notice?

For me, it’s the tendency for colours of nearby blobs to be the same: in other words, highly productive cities tend to have low unemployment towns in their hinterland.

The message here seems to be: stop suggesting that economic policy is focusing on cities at the expense of towns. They need each other.

Pretty much everyone’s seen a spending cut

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By my count, there are exactly two cities that have seen spending rises: Oxford and Luton. In every other city, spending has been cut.

Generally, the biggest cuts – those shown here in lighter colours – have hit northern cities such as Doncaster, Wakefield and Liverpool. The very worst hit of all has been Barnsley, where spending has fallen by over 40 per cent.

Cities are under more financial pressure than the rest of the country

On both social care and other services, spending on cities is tracking lower than it is in the rest of country.

Jolly good.

There’s no obvious correlation between the state of a city’s economy and the depth of its cuts

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I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, but the striking thing here is the lack of a pattern: heavy cuts fallen on both thriving and struggling cities. Hmm.

Some councils are getting commercial

This is more common in the south, though there are notable exceptions (Oxford, Blackburn) to the pattern:

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“There are questions about whether it is advisable for the public sector to be moving into property investment or charging f or a greater share of the services they provide,” the report says. Quite.

The most productive city in Britain is not where you think

You’re a CityMetric reader. You probably have some idea of the economic geography of Britain, right? There’s a north/south divide, Scotland is doing its own thing, there are pockets of productivity in the historic university towns, but basically all economic activity pointing towards London?

Well: from this year’s Cities Outlook I learned that, in 2017, Cambridge was less productive than… Basildon.

More strikingly still, the most productive city of all in Britain in 2017 was...

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..Slough.

John Betjeman must be turning in his grave.

You can read the full Cities Outlook 2019 report here.


 

 
 
 
 

“Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis”

You BET! Oh GOD. Image: Getty.

Today, the mayor of London called for new powers to introduce rent controls in London. With ever increasing rents swallowing more of people’s income and driving poverty, the free market has clearly failed to provide affordable homes for Londoners. 

Created in 1988, the modern private rented sector was designed primarily to attract investment, with the balance of power weighted almost entirely in landlords’ favour. As social housing stock has been eroded, with more than 1 million fewer social rented homes today compared to 1980, and as the financialisation of homes has driven up house prices, more and more people are getting trapped private renting. In 1990 just 11 per cent of households in London rented privately, but by 2017 this figure had grown to 27 per cent; it is also home to an increasing number of families and older people. 

When I first moved to London, I spent years spending well over 50 per cent of my income on rent. Even without any dependent to support, after essentials my disposable income was vanishingly small. London has the highest rent to income ratio of any region, and the highest proportion of households spending over a third of their income on rent. High rents limit people’s lives, and in London this has become a major driver of poverty and inequality. In the three years leading up to 2015-16, 960,000 private renters were living in poverty, and over half of children growing up in private rented housing are living in poverty.

So carefully designed rent controls therefore have the potential to reduce poverty and may also contribute over time to the reduction of the housing benefit bill (although any housing bill reductions have to come after an expansion of the system, which has been subject to brutal cuts over the last decade). Rent controls may also support London’s employers, two-thirds of whom are struggling to recruit entry-level staff because of the shortage of affordable homes. 

It’s obvious that London rents are far too high, and now an increasing number of voices are calling for rent controls as part of the solution: 68 per cent of Londoners are in favour, and a growing renters’ movement has emerged. Groups like the London Renters Union have already secured a massive victory in the outlawing of section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions. But without rent control, landlords can still unfairly get rid of tenants by jacking up rents.


At the New Economics Foundation we’ve been working with the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority to research what kind of rent control would work in London. Rent controls are often polarising in the UK but are commonplace elsewhere. New York controls rents on many properties, and Berlin has just introduced a five year “rental lid”, with the mayor citing a desire to not become “like London” as a motivation for the policy. 

A rent control that helps to solve London’s housing crisis would need to meet several criteria. Since rents have risen three times faster than average wages since 2010, rent control should initially brings rents down. Our research found that a 1 per cent reduction in rents for four years could lead to 20 per cent cheaper rents compared to where they would be otherwise. London also needs a rent control both within and between tenancies because otherwise landlords can just reset rents when tenancies end.

Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis – but it’s not without risk. Decreases in landlord profits could encourage current landlords to exit the sector and discourage new ones from entering it. And a sharp reduction in the supply of privately rented homes would severely reduce housing options for Londoners, whilst reducing incentives for landlords to maintain and improve their properties.

Rent controls should be introduced in a stepped way to minimise risks for tenants. And we need more information on landlords, rents, and their business models in order to design a rent control which avoids unintended consequences.

Rent controls are also not a silver bullet. They need to be part of a package of solutions to London’s housing affordability crisis, including a large scale increase in social housebuilding and an improvement in housing benefit. However, private renting will be part of London’s housing system for some time to come, and the scale of the affordability crisis in London means that the question of rent controls is no longer “if”, but increasingly “how”. 

Joe Beswick is head of housing & land at the New Economics Foundation.