“Different cities are different”: so how does the housing crisis look in different city regions?

Well, it's a start. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Europe’s cities.

One of the big problems in urban policy making is working out how well things are going already.

Normally the easiest way to measure your performance is to compare it to that of your peers. With cities, though, that’s easier said than done: for reasons I’ve explained at tedious length before, there are so many different ways of defining a city, and things are done so differently in different jurisdictions, that just getting to a point where you can reasonable compare two sets of figures is a massive job.

In Britain we compound this problem by fiddling around with local authority boundaries every 20 minutes or so.

At first glance, the six new city regions, which elected their first metro mayors last week, look pretty familiar: a lot like mostly metropolitan counties so venerable that they date all the way back to 1974.

Actually, though, only three of them (Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, Cambridgeshire & Peterborough) actually match those boundaries. The other three are very slightly different. The Liverpool City Region is Merseyside plus Halton; Tees Valley is Cleveland plus Darlington; West of England is Avon minus North Somerset.

That’s not hugely different – we’re still talking about the same sort of place. But it is different enough to make finding comparative figures on these places a pain in the bum.

Lucky, then, that those heroes at the Centre for Cities have ridden to the rescue yet again. The new city regions differ from the “primary urban areas” that the Centre normally uses in its datatools. But to get round that, they’ve put together new “data dashboards” looking at some of the data on each of the new city regions.

Over the next few weeks we’re going to trawl through those to build up a picture of the new city regions. But to give you a flavour, I thought I’d compare some of the data on an issue very close to my heart.

Each of the images below show two charts about a city region’s housing market. The top one is the housing affordability ratio – that is, the relationship between the average house price and the average salary. The latter is the growth in the region’s housing stock (with 2001 figures as a baseline). On each graph, the green  line is the city region and the grey one the national average.

Here’s the West Midlands:

Since 2006, housing affordability has improved very slightly, even though the region has increased its housing stock more slowly than the national average. This isn’t necessarily a contradiction: the number of dwe;lings tells us about the area’s supply of housing, but without figures for change in the local population we don’t know anything about demand.

Here’s the same figures for Greater Manchester:

There, the affordability ratio is quite a lot lower than the national average. The rate of house building has recently been a little sluggish, however.

Next door in the Liverpool City Region...

...there are two striking things going on in these graphs. One is that housing affordability has fallen, quite significantly, from 6.9 times average earnings in 2006 to 6.1 a decade later. The other is that the city region’s housing stock has grown incredibly slowly: climbing by just 8 per cent in 16 years

One more for luck: here’s Cambridgeshire & Peterborough.

This one’s complicated by the fact it’s at least two different cities, plus an assortment of small towns and rural areas: it isn’t a single economic region, and so not a single housing market, in the way the first three were. So while Cambridge has some of the least affordable housing in Britain, much of the rest of the region doesn’t fit that pattern.

That perhaps explains how it is that housing in Cambridgeshire is in fact slightly more affordable than the national average – and how it is that a city one associates with a housing crisis could exist in a city-region where the housing stock has grown quite so rapidly.

I’m going to stop there because this is quite confusing enough as it is. But two conclusions jump out at me.

 One is that – this is upsetting to me – you can build more homes and still see affordability deteriorate. Whether that’s because demand is growing (more people, or at least more households; the two are not quite the same thing) or because of other, financial factors is not something we can determine from this data. But nonetheless: there’s no simple correlation between more homes and more affordable housing.

The other conclusion from this data is that the different city regions are, well, different. The policies that are needed to improve the housing market in one nay not work so well with another.

Which seems to me like a very good argument for the sort of devolution these new mayor represent.

Anyway. For the next few weeks I’ll be looking at the data dashboards for each individual city region in more detail – to try and work out what’s in the new mayors’ inboxes.

You can explore the new data tool yourself here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 

What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.