How can we make regionalists and wonks agree about devolution? Talk about accountability

Simpler times: a detail of the administrative map of England as it stood in 1931. Image: XrysD/Wikimedia Commons.

Much of the debate over devolution is currently being argued out in terms of identity versus practicality. On one side, the government and a small army of policy wonks argue that devolution within England has to be centred around economic growth, and so the structures of devolution must follow economic links.

On the other side, an army of regionalists, Yorkists, Lancastrians and others argue that devolution within England needs to follow the precedent of Wales and Scotland, and reflect cultural links first and foremost.

This is not a new argument, but one that has formed the backdrop of every attempt to reform local government in England over the last 50 years. From the Redcliffe-Maud Report in the 1960s through to Osborne's powerhouses and engine rooms the pattern has been similar: the government proposes changes to local government that involve adjusting boundaries to reflect current economic patterns; people on the ground object to some or all of those changes; and a final proposal eventually emerges that neither side really wants but can grudgingly accept.

This problem arises because both sides of the practicality versus identity debate have strong cases through looking at different sets of existing facts. The economic case points out that the way regional and local economies work rarely pays much heed to existing political and cultural boundaries – so if you're creating structures to enhance those existing economies you need to take account of that. The identity case argues that the cultural and political links that have developed outside of the economic sphere, and for far longer, must be recognised too.


Added to that clash are two other problems. First, local governance in much of England is a mess thanks to repeated waves of reorganisation that have left us with a confusing patchwork of organisations, bureaucracies and responsibilities.

For instance, where I live the borough council has some responsibilities, while the county council has others. Meanwhile, the county-wide police and fire Service have different boundaries to the county council, and the ambulance service operates across several counties in the region. That, of course, doesn’t match up with any of the boundaries used by the rest of the NHS in this area, though it does coincide with some regional functions remaining from the Labour Government. None of these, however, share boundaries with the Local Enterprise Partnership, and devolution is being proposed on a different set of boundaries to the LEP.

Add in to this the confusion caused by overlapping bureaucracies, and you can see how the second problem would be a lack of accountability.

We already have a situation where there are a confusing mix of institutions, some with borders based on identity, and some with borders based on practicality. This makes trying to hold any of them accountable on behalf of the people they're meant to be serving incredibly difficult – and the government's current devolution proposals are in the same vein.

This is why accountability needs to be an important part of any devolution proposal. It is possible to create new institutions that work over historic cultural boundaries – but the people have to be part of the process and the drawing of boundaries has to reflect cultural links as well as economic ones. The technocratic practicality argument of “this is what is best for you” has to yield to some local realities; but the identity counter-argument also has to accept that identities can change over time, and people can have multiple ones.

Expecting cultural, economic and governmental boundaries to match perfectly is foolish – and any devolution solution is always going to anger somebody. Demanding that identity or practicality alone should be the sole consideration is going to lead to problems, and any solution that's going to be successful in the long-term needs to balance the two through ensuring it's accountable.

Accountability isn't just about the practical structures of the system: it’s also about recognising and creating shared expectations and culture amongst the people that system is representing and serving. That may be the common ground that enough of the two sides can come together on to create something that pleases enough – if not all – of them.

Nick Barlow blogs at What You Can Get Away With.

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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.