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.