“Nobody knows anything”: A brief guide to how Brexit could affect Britain’s cities

You can give up on this for a start. Image: Getty.

A consensus has rapidly emerged around the correct way to respond to Britain’s exit from the European Union: blind panic.

There’s a reason for this. It’s not that new arrangements will inevitably be a disaster (though it’s far from clear that they won’t be) – it’s simply that all bets are off. It’s not clear whether we’ll stay in the single market, or whether there’ll be a recession, or whether the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland will even exist in a few year’s time.

Given all that, the idea that we can predict with any confidence what specific bits of public policy will look like in the near future is a bit of a nonsense. Which, for a man who writes quite a lot about housing/transport/devolution, is a bit of a problem, if I’m honest.

But we are where we are – even if we might be somewhere entirely different by this time tomorrow – so let’s survey the landscape. Here’s a brief guide to why Brexit means uncertainty for the sort of things CityMetric cares about.

Devolution

One man has been the driving force behind the Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine and all the other names for the revolutionary idea that maybe British cities should have some measure of control over their own destinies: chancellor George Osborne.

Except, he’s almost certainly not going to be chancellor any more come the autumn. Since he’s ruled himself out of the Tory leadership contest – presumably on the quite reasonable grounds that he would lose – Osborne will almost certainly be less powerful in the next ministry than he’s been in this one.

Without anyone pushing it – and with much of the government distracted by the biggest political event to hit this country in decades – it seems likely that the devolution agenda will come to a halt. And any city that doesn’t have a devolution deal in place now – hi, Leeds – is pretty unlikely to get one.

It’s possible that grassroots pressure from local government will keep the devolution train rolling: London’s mayor Sadiq Khan is already using referendum result to agitate for more powers to London. But it’s unclear how cities without mayors would even make that case.

Oh, and local authority funding will probably be cut because that happens every time there’s a Budget in this country, so.

On which note:


Transport

We haven’t had an emergency budget yet. Once we have a new prime minister, and a new chancellor, though, we almost certainly will.

Even if the promise of an extra £350m a week to spend on domestic priorities hadn’t been a lie – which it was – that money wouldn’t materialise until we actually leave the EU, some time in 2018 at the earliest. In the mean time, economic turmoil means that tax revenues are likely to fall, and extra austerity is the order of the day.

Now personally, I’m quite a fan of Keynsianism: I reckon that making some serious infrastructure investments could be just the counter-cyclical action we need to strengthen the British economy over the next few years. Ministers, however, rarely ask for my views, and they’re distinctly unfashionable in a Westminster more concerned about the deficit.

So don’t be surprised if new grand-projets are in short supply for a while. Indeed, there’s no guarantee that those already approved will go ahead. The new line between Manchester and Leeds (£20bn), London’s Crossrail 2 (£30bn), High Speed 2 (£55bn) – any or all of them could be juicy targets for a new chancellor looking for savings.

Housing

Trying to work out what Brexit will do for housing policy is like trying to work out what your lunch today will do for how you feel tomorrow. There’s a link, but good luck trying to find it.

Here’s what we can say for certain. The referendum has hit the share price of Britain’s house buildings very, very hard. See if you can spot the day of the vote on this chart of Taylor Wimpey’s share price:

Image: Wolfram Alpha.

Explaining small movements in share prices is a mug’s game, but that is not a small movement – it’s about 30 per cent – nor is it an isolated case. The consensus is that Brexit will mean a fall in house prices. That in turn will mean the housebuilders build less, which will make it harder to deal with the fact we don’t have enough homes.

Then again, one big factor in any fall in house prices will be a rise in interest rates. Such a rise may not happen – indeed, there’s also been some talk of a fall in interest rates, effectively to negative levels, so who knows.

Even if house prices do fall, it’s unlikely to make things easier for any first-time-buyer who isn’t sat on a pile of cash, because mortgages are probably going to get more expensive: you just won’t be able to afford a cheaper house than you couldn’t afford before.  As for renters, if landlords are feeling poorer – which they will be – they’ll probably at least try to increase rents. (Whether the market will bear this is another question.)

Then again, if Brexit really does mean a fall in immigration – or even just making it very clear to existing European residents that they’re no longer welcome – Britain’s population increase could slow, or even go into reverse. In 10 years time, it’s quite possible we’ll be talking about the brain drain and half empty cities once again – in which case, housing would be cheaper, but this may not be much comfort.

To sum up: nobody knows anything. But unless you’re a first-time-buyer with £200k in the bank, it’s difficult to see this as good news.

 

There’s more – there’s so much more. The EU directs a small fortune towards regional cultural and regeneration projects - those are all gone, and it’s hard to see anything replacing them. Universities are fretting about lost funding, too, and since they make a big economic contribution to so many British cities, that’s bad for those cities, too.

This week, hilariously, London is hosting the Business & Climate Summit, where leaders from around the globe are meant to be discussing how to implement April’s Paris Agreement on reducing carbon emissions. Climate secretary Amber Rudd says the UK remains committed – but since we’re due a new government, and since abandoning international agreements is the order of the day, it’s difficult to feel too confident.

Oh, yeah, and foreign direct investment will be frozen, at best, and a load of multinationals may or may not leave the country.

On the upside, in the immediate future, Brexit is extremely unlikely to negatively affect the tube map.

Small mercies, eh?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.