England’s first local lockdown raises questions about council boundaries and powers

Leicester on Tuesday. Image: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

On Saturday, most of England will take another big step toward reopening when museums, hairdressers, pubs and other businesses in the hospitality sector welcome customers for the first time since March. Residents of one urban area, however, will not be joining in with the fun.

Leicester, an east Midlands city of around 500,000, recorded 944 positive tests for Covid-19 in the fortnight up to 23 June. It’s now responsible for around 10% of all the UK’s cases, despite holding less than 1% of its population. 

So Monday night, health secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that it would be the site of the country’s first local lockdown. All non-essential shops have closed. Schools, which were only just beginning to open, are to close once again, and to stay that way until September. The public is being warned to avoid all non-essential travel to or from the city. The measures will be reviewed in two weeks’ time.

The pandemic in Leicester, compared to two other cities. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

The possibility of local lockdowns of this sort was first raised as far back as March. It makes sense: the nature of disease transmission means cases tend to cluster, and it’d be better for both the economy and other forms of public well-being for areas not currently afflicted to begin opening up again. To that end, in May, the government instructed councils to come up with local outbreak plans, to explain how they would manage a Covid flare up, with a deadline of the end of June. Boris Johnson has described it as “doing whack-a-mole”.

But the shift from national to local strategies for fighting the pandemic raises two questions. One is whether local government is up to the job. Even before austerity kicked in in 2010, councils had been stripped of money and powers over a period of decades, inevitably accompanied by a hollowing out of expertise as once-powerful city and county governments gradually morphed into service delivery bodies for Westminster. Over the last ten years they’ve seen sweeping cuts, worth, depending on how you calculate them, at least 20% of their budgets, and possibly as much as 40%

On top of that, they have remarkably few fiscal levers to pull to raise money, and no ability to set their own laws. They don’t control local policing (forces are accountable to elected police and crime commissioners or, in a few big metropolitan areas, mayors). And they have far fewer powers over schools than they once did, thanks to the academies programme, whose explicit goal was to reduce council influence.

None of this is meant as shade on council staff, many of whom work hard in incredibly difficult circumstances. But if you were trying to design an organisation perfectly empowered to lead the fight against a global pandemic, I’m not sure it’d look like this.

The other question raised by the local lockdowns is more philosophical: what exactly is Leicester? The area that feels like a city to its residents, the area that would feel like a city to a stranger, and the area over which a city council actually has powers rarely align: contiguous suburbs are often out, rural areas sometimes in. The geographies covered by NHS organisations, business groups like local enterprise partnerships and the police will often differ again. Even without getting into questions of commuting, when the government says “Leicester must lock down”, it’s not clear where Leicester stops, or how you can ensure that everyone in and around it understands which side of the line they are on.

Incidentally, in a move that seems to sum up this problem, the area actually being locked down doesn’t align with any of these existing institutional geographies. The black line is the border of Leicester City Council; the red is the border of the larger area actually included in the lockdown.

The boundaries of the Leicester lockdown. Image: UK government.

Perhaps it’s because of these institutional weaknesses, or perhaps it's mere habit, that the health secretary seems to “expect to personally be involved in the deployment of all local outbreak plans,” as the New Local Government Network’s deputy director Jessica Studdert put it. There are other signs that national government is struggling to get comfortable with the idea that cities and counties should take the lead. The government first raised the possibility of local outbreak plans months ago. It took weeks to even decide which of the many layers of local government should even draw them up; at time of writing, much of the data on testing results still hasn’t been shared with councils.

But the need for councils to be involved in the fight against the pandemic isn’t going anyway. Indeed, there’s a case for making that role stronger: as Studdert also noted, micromanagement slows things down, and the public may well respond better to “Leicester decides to lock down” than to “London-based government forces lockdown on Leicester”. What’s more, as the city’s former deputy mayor Rory Palmer tweeted earlier, local lockdowns will mean local economic damage. It’s not clear the Treasury will be agile enough to address that. Local government might be.

Neither council boundaries, nor their powers, have been designed to deal with something like a pandemic. Perhaps, among all the many ways in which this crisis will change the world, it’ll help make the case for reform.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.


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.