A roadmap for how to Make The North Great Again

Houses in Liverpool, 2015. Image: Getty.

The north of England has always been associated with industry, innovation, and pride in both. You can still see that pioneering spirit all over the North, whether it’s Teesside’s growing renewable energy sector, or Greater Manchester’s reputation for excellence in e-commerce and fashion.

However, that success is not as widespread as it should be. It’s been five years since then-Chancellor George Osborne called for a “Northern Powerhouse” to rival London and the South-East, yet analysis from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests that gross value-added (GVA) – the value of goods produced – per head in the North still lags behind that in the South. This isn’t how you build a healthy, balanced UK-wide economy.

If we’re serious about changing this, then it’s time to talk about what simple things could set the foundations for a prosperous North. You don’t need an economics degree to understand that you’ll struggle to encourage talented employers and workers to an area if you can’t offer them the basics – things like decent homes, proper transport, and attractive areas in which to live.

That’s why Homes for the North will be joined by Kevin Hollinrake MP, Housing Secretary James Brokenshire, and Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey as we launch our new charter, Rebalancing the Economy: Building the Northern Homes We Need in Parliament this week.

We’ll be talking about the importance of devolution, transport, and the right homes in the right places for northern growth. In today’s politically turbulent times it can be hard to find something Labour and Conservatives can agree on, but we’re delighted that colleagues from both sides of the House will be coming together to celebrate something that unites them: the importance of a prosperous North.

With the right tools and right approach, the North could thrive. That’s why we’ll also be announcing an upcoming piece of research we’re working on with Transport for the North that explores how a new approach to homes and infrastructure could support the delivery of a massive £97 billion in additional GVA by 2050.

This new research, Housing Requirements to meet North of England Economic Growth Potential, builds on the findings of 2016’s Northern Powerhouse Independent Economic Review – a piece of analysis that set out how pursuing the “Northern Powerhouse Vision” could deliver a “transformational” change to the economy by 2050. This includes the creation of 1.5 million new jobs, and delivering an additional £97 billion in GVA – a massive boost that would benefit all of the UK, not just the North.

In response to this review, Transport for the North has set out how strategic transport investments in key areas could help to deliver this vision of prosperity by opening up new areas in which to live and work. Now, Homes for the North is working with Transport for the North, the Centre for Economics and Business Research and other partners to deliver the final piece of the puzzle: how building the right homes in the right places could put the North on track to achieve that “transformational” economic growth scenario.

This research will set out what, to many, just makes intuitive sense: that if you’re opening up new infrastructure links, and an area needs new homes, planning the two in tandem will result in a well-connected community where people want to live. This isn’t about ripping up the rulebook on planning – it’s about doing things smarter, and getting better results.


However, we can’t realise this vision of a rebalanced economy without a serious conversation about investment and ambition. At present, the Treasury assesses how and where to allocate investment using a methodology that relies heavily on a cost-benefit-analysis that looks at short-term economic value (ie, return on investment) rather than longer-term economic potential. This means that Treasury investment in vital infrastructure ends up disproportionately funnelled into areas like the South-East – areas that are already productive and economically strong.

This is a short-term approach that reinforces the productivity gap between the North and South. Unfortunately, we see this approach echoed in the government’s new means of assessing housing need. Objectively Assessed Need (OAN) has local authorities assess how many homes they need using data based on projections reflecting a period of sluggish economic growth – rather than accounting for future need and local ambition.

Homes for the North analysis found that this has resulted in the government underestimating how many homes are needed as a baseline in the North to the tune of 13,000 homes – which could mean a £2.37 billion loss in economic output. This is particularly troubling in light of Homes for the North research which revealed that the North needs at least 50,000 new homes a year just to keep pace with current demand.

Clearly, it’s time for the Government to take a more long-term approach to how it allocates funding for vital infrastructure such as homes and transport – looking at local economic ambition and plans, not just past trends and performance. The North certainly isn’t short on ambition and potential – last year saw Centre for Cities rank Manchester and Leeds the top two cities in the country for city centre jobs and growth.

If the Government wants to aid and assist this growth, and ensure that it is spread across the North, it’s high time that the Treasury started considering future demand and opportunity when allocating investment. We need targets, we need investment, we need the powers to deliver them in a way that works in a specifically northern context.

Our research and charter is focussed on how the North could achieve that “transformational” change to the northern economy – but it’s important that we never lose sight of the country-wide context. The lopsided nature of the economy means that many are effectively trapped in the London commuter belt, wrestling with high costs of living, housing, and commuting. A rebalanced economy would mean that people have greater choice over where in the UK they build their careers, homes, and families.

What’s more, in the first six months of 2018, the UK was one of the slowest growing economies in the G7. If the Government is to reverse this trend, it needs to start taking the North’s potential seriously. It’s time for real investment in this potential, and recognition of the fundamental importance of ‘basic’ infrastructure like homes and transport in transforming an area’s fortunes. For the sake of all of the UK, it’s high time we properly invest in the North.

Carol Matthews is chief executive of housing association Riverside and chair of Homes for the North.

 
 
 
 

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.