Five big themes to watch in British urban policy this year

A new day dawns. Image: Getty.

If 2016 was a dramatic year in national and global politics, 2017 has been no less eventful – with the continuing fall-out from the Brexit vote, a wildly unpredictable general election which produced stalemate in Westminster, and cabinet sackings taking place on a near-weekly basis.

In this context, urban policy appears to have slipped somewhat under the radar in terms of the national political and media agenda. Nonetheless, 2017 saw major developments for UK cities which will have a significant bearing on their economic prospects for the coming year and beyond, including a radical shift towards localised forms of leadership. Moreover, it is our urban areas where the big national and global issues outlined above play out, and in the absence of significant policy making at the national level, it has been and will be up to city leaders to ensure that their place is ready for the challenges 2018 may bring.

With that in mind, here are my reflections on the five issues which have dominated urban policy in the past 12 months:

1. The election of six new metro mayors

As Tony Travers recently noted on our blog, the six new city regional mayors elected in May 2017 were a radical innovation in England’s otherwise centralised system of governance. And seven months on, they are already demonstrating the benefits this model can bring.

As well as benefiting city economies, metro mayors also signify a democratic shift with more accountable and visible local leadership. Happily, turnout in the elections was higher than many anticipated, ranging from 21 per cent in Tees Valley to 33 per cent in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough. More surprisingly (and probably more politically advantageous in the short-term), the Conservatives won four of the six mayoralties, including shock victories in the West Midlands and Tees Valley – places where Labour had 10 and 13 point leads respectively at the 2015 general election.

They have carved out an important role for themselves in the UK’s political landscape. By knowing the needs of their place, and working together, the new metro mayors have already positioned themselves as champions for their cities, against a government whose perspective is often flatly national. For example, after the government decision to scrap the electrification of the Manchester-Leeds trainline in July, Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram (mayors of Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region respectively) were instrumental in forcing them to offer new promises on improving northern train links.

If there was any doubt about the merits of having a metro mayor, the autumn Budget put those misgivings to bed, demonstrating that mayoral city regions will be prioritised in government investment and policy making. In the new ‘Transforming Cities’ fund, a £1.7bn initiative to improve transport and infrastructure in cities, half of the total investment was immediately allocated to mayoral city regions. (Other cities will have to fight for their share in a competitive process.)

The onus is now on other major cities such as Leeds and Sheffield, which are yet to introduce a metro mayor, to step up efforts to agree or finalise devolution deals – or risk falling further behind.

2. Devolution (with or without a mayor)

During the first half of 2017 the Government’s enthusiasm for city devolution was lukewarm at best.  Indeed, since George Osborne’s exit from 11 Downing Street, there have been big question marks over the future of the ‘devolution revolution’ which he championed.

This in part explained the demise of the Sheffield City Region deal, the lack of progress on the Leeds city region deal, and the re-emergence of calls for a ‘One Yorkshire’ approach. All three of these developments risk diluting the importance of the Leeds and Sheffield city regions at a time when the opposite is needed.

Even the new Conservative metro mayors have expressed frustration at the government’s lack of engagement with them on the biggest issues facing their communities. The delay in devolving the Adult Education Budget, for example, has highlighted the extent to which this agenda had been allowed to drift.

However, as shown with the metro mayors, the autumn Budget was a welcome (albeit partial) re-engagement with the devolution agenda. It brought a new North of Tyne deal covering Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland, and city deals for Belfast and Dundee. This was in addition to a second round of devolution for the West Midlands, and the potential for further powers in both Tees Valley and Liverpool City Region.

Given its weak position, and the challenge of Brexit, in 2018 and beyond the government needs to deliver on the level and scope of devolution demonstrated in the Budget and put it back to the top of the political agenda (as it was under the Cameron/Osborne administration). By returning to its original economic focus, and extending devolution to medium and smaller cities, cities can ensure they are ready for the challenges and opportunities of leaving the EU, while national government negotiates the right deal for the country.

3.Industrial Strategy

Last summer the then new Prime Minister Theresa May promised a new industrial strategy to drive growth “up and down the country, in rural areas and our great cities”.

It’s striking how much enthusiasm there was for the industrial strategy, with the government receiving more than 2,000 responses to its Green Paper published in January, and different advocates claiming that the industrial strategy could solve all the country’s economic travails.  With this level of expectation, it was inevitable that the White Paper – published in November – was going to disappoint.

The strategy rightly identified the need to tackle the UK’s poor productivity, and set out sensible solutions to do so, covering five ‘foundations’ – People, Ideas, Infrastructure, Business and Place. Specific initiatives included the extension of the National Productivity Infrastructure Fund, the Transforming Cities Fund, and the National Retraining Scheme to allow people and places adapt to on-going economic change.

But missing from the strategy was an appreciation of the overarching importance of ‘place’ as the mechanism for coordinating and integrating different policies at the local level. The other four foundations of the Industrial Strategy play out mainly in cities, which act as the platform where ideas are created and commercialised, where businesses trade, and where people live and work.

In 2018, as the industrial strategy is put in place, cities should set out how they are going to use their local strategies to put together a package of policies that deal with the specific challenges their area faces. And with that in place, the government will need to give cities the powers and resources to deliver.

4. Business rates and local government finance

Business rates devolution was first announced in 2015, but progress has since slowed. Legislation was introduced in January and was making its way through Parliament for implementation in 2020, but at the announcement of the general election it was dropped.

Yet, true to the pattern already seen with mayors and wider devolution, in the second half of the year, the government began to push the agenda once more, albeit in ways that don’t require primary legislation. It introduced several pilots to test full rates retention, including in Greater Manchester and the Greater London Authority, and more recently, the government announced that local authorities would be able to retain 75 per cent of their business rates from 2020-21.

Devolving business rates could be a major step towards giving cities more of the powers, resources and incentives they need to tackle the economic challenges they face.  But for that to happen, the government will need to make the current system more inclusive and responsive to the needs of struggling places.

As our recent briefing showed, that means giving places more incentives to improve their commercial property, as well as making more business space available. Doing so will reward places for taking the right steps to support more high value firms and jobs. It will also help generate more business rates revenue overall – some of which can be redistributed to places which are struggling.

5. Political divides between successful cities and the rest of the country

Economic divides between the Greater South East and the rest of the country are well known – but the June General Election results pointed to increasing political divides around the country, too. As seen in the US, one of the major divisions is between people living in successful cities and those living in struggling cities and rural areas. This is a pattern already seen in last year’s EU referendum.

Analysis of the 2017 General Election shows that the Conservatives lost ground in two key demographics in particular: young people, and people living in major cities – with the Labour consolidating its power in London, and in other major cities across England and Wales.

That said, in some of Labour’s urban heartlands which tend to perform less well economically – including Stoke, Middlesbrough, and Sheffield – saw swings to the right, resulting in its one loss – Mansfield, on a 17 per cent swing to the Conservatives.

These voting patterns mirror wider economic patterns. Successful cities attract more and more high skilled workers and high waged jobs, whereas less successful cities and rural areas are seeing their local economies increasingly dependent on low paid and precarious work, often having lost their traditional industries to global economic shifts.

The political consequences of this division are unsurprising; our most successful cities look to the future with openness and optimism, while our struggling places hope for a return to their more successful past.

With these divides reflective of entrenched economic circumstances, bridging the political gap between these places will not be easy. And exacerbating the problem is the widespread distrust of national politicians and elites. In such an environment it is possible that even as situations improve, popular opinions will remain entrenched and resistant to policies intended to be beneficial.

Local politics, and the metro mayors in particular, offer new opportunities for national parties to reconnect with a sceptical, divided electorate.  For Labour, there’s an opportunity for mayors to show that Labour can deliver demonstrable change grounded in local priorities rather than political ideology. For the Conservatives, there’s a chance to demonstrate their relevance and value to urban voters, such as in Manchester and Liverpool, places that have otherwise largely ignored them.

Should Brexit lead to the government centralising power further, the already difficult issue of trying to craft national policies that meet the needs of increasingly diverse places will only get worse. Yet on the other hand, if Brexit leads to the wholesale devolution of policies allowing local politicians much more control over the issues that affect the daily lives of the people they represent, then bridging the stark political divides seen since the EU referendum might be possible.

At the start of the year it looked as though national policy development would be incremental at best, an observation seemingly compounded by a government weakened after the general election. Yet there has been significant movement in other policy areas relevant to the urban agenda, including in housing – with the government setting ambitious targets, though not offering a clear sense of how it will achieve them –  and in developing transport infrastructure across the north and midlands, a hotly debate topic about which we can expect further announcements over the next few weeks.

At the Centre, we’ll be continuing to focus in 2018 on the big issues affecting city economies, including the impact of automation and globalisation on urban labour markets – and how cities can manage competing demands for housing and commercial space.

Andrew Carter is chief executive of the think tank Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article previously appeared.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.