Scrapping Building Schools for the Future hurt – but it forced Liverpool to rethink its finances

Light breaks through over Liverpool. Image: Getty.

The Labour mayor of Liverpool on life after Building Schools for the Future.

Eight years ago, I picked up the pieces of our bid to have 24 schools in Liverpool rebuilt or renovated as part of the government’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.

As one of its first acts, the coalition government had scrapped the scheme. The shutters at the Department of Education abruptly came down. Civil servants we had been dealing with stopped returning our calls.

Austerity had already become Whitehall’s official religion and councils simply had to get with the programme. Cuts were coming.

Michael Gove, the then education secretary, appeared on the television and at the dispatch box making light of what, to him, was juicy £55bn slice of departmental spending he could offer up to the Treasury.

The trouble is it came at the expense of the children of Liverpool – and those in dozens of other boroughs – who were left in old, dilapidated and, in many cases, unsafe buildings that had long outlived their purpose. No-one was listening.

Left high and dry, our response was to take matters into our own hands.

We invited our various education partners to sit around the table and thrash out an alternative programme, utilising whatever council funding we could find – and all other government cash we could beg and borrow – to generate our own, localised version of BSF.

The Liverpool Schools Investment Programme was born and over the past decade, £180m has been invested in rebuilding or substantially repairing 24 schools across the city. Around 18,000 pupils in the city are now benefitting from state-of the art classroom facilities, helping with the task of ensuring our children get the best state education possible. For me, it stands as one of my proudest achievements.

However, the broader point is that we have seen public spending delegitimised over the past decade as cuts have hollowed out public services and everything from the benefits system, to the armed forces have felt the effects.


We were originally told ‘the big society’ would fill the gap. Of course, all the jumble sales in the world won’t replace the £444m taken out of our revenue support grant (RSG).

Next year’s spending review – on the back of anaemic growth and the potential shock effects of Brexit – means the situation will get worse, not better. (That’s not even mentioning the total lack of clarity about what happens when the RSG is abolished in 2020.)

There is no reprieve for local authorities, despite Tory-controlled Northamptonshire County Council actually going bust. That’s before we get onto the yawning national financial crisis in adult social care and the £2bn deficit that has opened up in children’s services.

Still, we cannot sit on our hands waiting to be rescued by a friendlier climate in Westminster and have to help ourselves. So that’s what we’re doing.

Our ‘invest to earn’ model sees us relentlessly sweat our assets in order to generate new revenue streams.

Using our capital borrowing powers, we are planning to help Everton football club build a new fit-for-purpose stadium, which will form the centrepiece of a much larger regeneration of 125-acres of our dilapidated north docks area, which have lain dormant since the 1980s. The revenue we will receive, if the deal is agreed – around £7m a year for 25 years – will be put straight back into frontline services.

A new £200m investment programme – again paid for by a mixture of savings and borrowing – will help us deliver a massive step-change in the quality of our roads network.

We have also launched a new municipal housing company, called Foundations, in order to rebalance the housing market in Liverpool. More than two-thirds of the properties in the city are in council tax Band A. This means that, for every one per cent of council tax, we raise just £1.6m. We need a better housing mix across the city to improve the sustainability of our core finances.

Our plans – although ambitious – are also prudent, with auditors from the Local Government Association recently reporting that we have a prudent level of debt and strong internal procedures for managing our finances.

Economic efficiency, then, to deliver social justice. Frankly, we have little choice but to be bold and ambitious in finding practical solutions to the problems that an austerity-led agenda has left us with, as we seek to protect the vulnerable and discharge our broader responsibilities.

For me, though, this journey began with a single, thoughtless swing of the axe from Michael Gove back in 2010.

Joe Anderson is Labour mayor of Liverpool.

 
 
 
 

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.