“We let algorithms redesign Scotland’s local government boundaries.” Here’s what happened

Glen Coe. The Highlands council areas are sparsely populated, wherever you draw the boundaries. Image: Getty.

There are certain things a wise politician would never tinker with: big issues such as council tax reform, which are placed in the “too difficult” box and remain unaddressed and unresolved for decades. Another such item is the redrawing of local government boundaries.

It’s not exactly a glamorous topic and, as BBC Scotland Political Editor Brian Taylor noted in 2012, “it is a courageous politician indeed who tampers with cooncil boundaries”/

Over the past few years in Scotland, there have been calls to reform council boundaries, and give local authorities a greater say in decisions made at Holyrood. But so far, nothing has been done and the current set of 32 Scottish council areas remain.

Ripe for reform

Despite the political risk associated with boundary reform, other governments across the world have grasped this particular nettle, because it can lead to more efficient governance and cut costs.

Recent regional rejigs in Denmark and France show that it can be done. And we believe an algorithmic approach can at the very least contribute to the debate. In France, the so-called “big bang des régions” of 2016 resulted in a total of 13 new regions, from a previous set of 22.

So, we thought it would be useful to make some suggestions about what a revised Scottish council geography could look like. To do this, we used commuting data and an algorithm called Combo, which groups together places with the strongest ties, using a set of rules. And instead of the current set of 32 Scottish council areas, we ended up with 17.

Combo shows how commuting patterns can help define areas. Image: Alasdair Rae and Ruth Hamilton.

The full set of results and the detailed method can be found in our recently published paper. However, we should emphasise that these are not proposals for new council areas. Instead, we hope our results offer decision-makers some useful evidence on where boundaries could be drawn, if they were based on travel to work patterns.

Of course, commuting is only one part of the story. But it’s a very important part, particularly in places such as Glasgow, where the local economy is highly dependent on commuters living in other areas.

Overall, we think the results are largely plausible. But they also show that, when it comes to drawing boundaries on maps, algorithms definitely shouldn’t have the last word – not least because they don’t have what we might call common sense.

Scotland’s council areas, if they were based on commuting and drawn by algorithm. Image: Alasdair Rae and Ruth Hamilton.

As you can see from the map, there are now 17 areas instead of the current set of 32 – two fewer than those proposed by think tank Reform Scotland in 2012. The most populous of the new areas is Greater Glasgow, with close to 1.2m people. This would make it the largest local authority in the UK.

This is followed by Edinburgh & the Lothians with 835,000. Lanarkshire is next, with 575,000, then Grampian with 476,000 people. These areas are considerably larger than their current equivalents.

Others, like Highland, Moray and Inverclyde stay the same, indicating that some administrative boundaries match existing travel to work patterns quite well. Or, to put it more simply, in some cases political and economic geographies look very similar.

Is or ought?

The table below shows the relationship between our new Combo areas and existing council areas. In the final column, you can see what percentage of the population of each new area comes from existing council areas. For example, 50.8 per cent of our new Greater Glasgow area is from the current City of Glasgow and 57.1 per cent of the new Edinburgh & the Lothians area is from the current City of Edinburgh.

Combo areas compared to current council areas. Image: Alasdair Rae and Ruth Hamilton.

On some levels, these new algorithmic subdivisions make a lot of sense – but others clearly require a human touch. For one thing, it doesn’t look quite right based on our understanding of how places function and how local services are delivered. The fact that 2 per cent of the population of our new Dundee, Perth and Angus area is across the Tay in Fife strongly suggests human intervention is needed.

The second issue relates to Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume’s “is-ought” question. This is because algorithms are very good at telling us what is, but they cannot tell us what ought to be.


For example, the algorithm suggests that Inverclyde is an entirely separate area. But given how close it is to our Greater Glasgow area, from a human and common sense perspective, it appears that it ought to be part of Greater Glasgow. Indeed, such a geography would match the current NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde region.

We need to recognise that algorithms are effectively blind to questions of history and identity. For example, our new boundaries know nothing of the Kingdom of Fife, or the Pictish Kingdom that preceded it. Yet such history often matters deeply to people and places.

This is where human decision-making, nuance and common sense come in, and why – when it comes to “too difficult” issues such as local boundary reform – humans should have the final say. But in getting to that point, we believe algorithms can certainly lend a helping hand.

The Conversation

Alasdair Rae, Professor in Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield and Ruth Hamilton, Teaching Associate, University of Sheffield.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

“Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis”

You BET! Oh GOD. Image: Getty.

Today, the mayor of London called for new powers to introduce rent controls in London. With ever increasing rents swallowing more of people’s income and driving poverty, the free market has clearly failed to provide affordable homes for Londoners. 

Created in 1988, the modern private rented sector was designed primarily to attract investment, with the balance of power weighted almost entirely in landlords’ favour. As social housing stock has been eroded, with more than 1 million fewer social rented homes today compared to 1980, and as the financialisation of homes has driven up house prices, more and more people are getting trapped private renting. In 1990 just 11 per cent of households in London rented privately, but by 2017 this figure had grown to 27 per cent; it is also home to an increasing number of families and older people. 

When I first moved to London, I spent years spending well over 50 per cent of my income on rent. Even without any dependent to support, after essentials my disposable income was vanishingly small. London has the highest rent to income ratio of any region, and the highest proportion of households spending over a third of their income on rent. High rents limit people’s lives, and in London this has become a major driver of poverty and inequality. In the three years leading up to 2015-16, 960,000 private renters were living in poverty, and over half of children growing up in private rented housing are living in poverty.

So carefully designed rent controls therefore have the potential to reduce poverty and may also contribute over time to the reduction of the housing benefit bill (although any housing bill reductions have to come after an expansion of the system, which has been subject to brutal cuts over the last decade). Rent controls may also support London’s employers, two-thirds of whom are struggling to recruit entry-level staff because of the shortage of affordable homes. 

It’s obvious that London rents are far too high, and now an increasing number of voices are calling for rent controls as part of the solution: 68 per cent of Londoners are in favour, and a growing renters’ movement has emerged. Groups like the London Renters Union have already secured a massive victory in the outlawing of section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions. But without rent control, landlords can still unfairly get rid of tenants by jacking up rents.


At the New Economics Foundation we’ve been working with the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority to research what kind of rent control would work in London. Rent controls are often polarising in the UK but are commonplace elsewhere. New York controls rents on many properties, and Berlin has just introduced a five year “rental lid”, with the mayor citing a desire to not become “like London” as a motivation for the policy. 

A rent control that helps to solve London’s housing crisis would need to meet several criteria. Since rents have risen three times faster than average wages since 2010, rent control should initially brings rents down. Our research found that a 1 per cent reduction in rents for four years could lead to 20 per cent cheaper rents compared to where they would be otherwise. London also needs a rent control both within and between tenancies because otherwise landlords can just reset rents when tenancies end.

Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis – but it’s not without risk. Decreases in landlord profits could encourage current landlords to exit the sector and discourage new ones from entering it. And a sharp reduction in the supply of privately rented homes would severely reduce housing options for Londoners, whilst reducing incentives for landlords to maintain and improve their properties.

Rent controls should be introduced in a stepped way to minimise risks for tenants. And we need more information on landlords, rents, and their business models in order to design a rent control which avoids unintended consequences.

Rent controls are also not a silver bullet. They need to be part of a package of solutions to London’s housing affordability crisis, including a large scale increase in social housebuilding and an improvement in housing benefit. However, private renting will be part of London’s housing system for some time to come, and the scale of the affordability crisis in London means that the question of rent controls is no longer “if”, but increasingly “how”. 

Joe Beswick is head of housing & land at the New Economics Foundation.